EPA Science Integrity Overhaul a Chance To Get Media Access Right

March 3, 2021
Reporters usually know which government scientist they want to talk to, but WatchDog says public information officers will instead choose scientists who are politically safe for the administration. Above, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Breidenbach Environmental Research Center in Cincinnati. Photo: Antony-22, Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.

WatchDog Opinion: EPA Science Integrity Overhaul a Chance To Get Media Access Right

By Joseph A. Davis

Is it too much for a reporter to ask to talk to a government scientist? It shouldn’t be. And it wasn’t always.

Federal agencies will be revising their scientific integrity policies under President Biden, and that creates a golden opportunity for journalists to press for more open government and greater freedom of information. If we blink, we may miss it. 

Suppression of science by government agencies has been common in recent decades. On the environment beat, it has been arguably the key freedom-of-information struggle. Climate is the main event, but toxic chemicals and even endangered species are less visible science battlegrounds.

When journalists can’t interview agency scientists to get their informed and expert knowledge, as well as their frank and uninhibited views, it harms more than journalism. It harms the public’s ability to get crucial information bearing on public and environmental health. It harms the integrity of government itself — and its ability to protect the public. It harms public trust in science and in government. 


Press offices at many agencies forbid scientists

from talking to reporters without a “minder.” 

The same practice is routine in dictatorships.


Yet press offices at many agencies have de facto policies forbidding scientists from talking to reporters without press-office permission and without a “minder,” that is, a press officer to sit in on an in-person interview, or listen in on the phone line. 

The same practice is routine in dictatorships. Saddam Hussein imposed minders when international monitors were interviewing his nuclear scientists. Back then, the U.S. government thought this was awful.

Today, though, it has increasingly become the rule at many — but not all — federal agencies. Although minders-and-permissions got worse during the Bush administration, it persisted under Obama and got worse still under Trump.


Industry capture, political PR

Science is corrupted when regulated industries “capture” federal agencies. It happens. A lot. 

The late coal baron Robert E. Murray unabashedly gave the Trump Environmental Protection Agency a to-do list, mostly centered on deregulating coal. Murray had contributed more than $1 million to Trump. Trump appointed a coal lobbyist to run EPA. 

When agencies themselves become corrupt, then pearl-clutching anxiety about the integrity of scientists becomes a joke. Then it’s not the scientists who are the problem. It’s the political appointees who oversee them.

Yes, over the years we have known many great press officers with integrity and noble hearts. But it is also true that over many decades, the top public affairs honchos at EPA have usually had experience working on the campaigns of the presidents who appointed them. 

Some have helped reporters get information to the public. Bless them. But too often they have sought to prevent PR disaster by saying as little as possible, dodging questions and avoiding responsibility. 


Paying lip service

EPA already had a scientific integrity policy in 2009 when President Obama ordered agencies to draw up scientific integrity policies. After lengthy review, EPA issued an updated policy in 2012, which, after revisions, is in effect today. 

On assuming office, President Biden issued an executive memorandum ordering agencies to review and revise their scientific integrity policies under supervision of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This process will be going on for at least the next year.

The issues covered in these policies are many and complex. But beginning with Obama, they generally pay lip service to transparency and communication of science in ways that involve openness and avoidance of political distortion or suppression. These goals are often stated as generalities, as in this, from the current policy:

“It is the responsibility of every EPA employee to conduct, utilize, and communicate science with honesty, integrity, and transparency, both within and outside the Agency. To operate an effective science and regulatory agency like the EPA, it is also essential that political or other officials not suppress or alter scientific findings.” 

Yet if you go down to the fine print, the current policy says public affairs “will designate” whom reporters talk to and that public affairs staff “should attend interviews.” 

Worse yet, the policy asserts (as will most public information officers, or PIOs) that the reason for minders and permissions is, as the policy states, “to ensure that the Agency is being fully responsive to media questions in a timely manner and to ensure responsiveness, consistency, and accuracy.”


Getting real with reporters

This is poppycock. Malarkey even. The scientists know more than the PIOs do about science. PIOs will choose scientists who are politically safe for the administration. Reporters often know exactly which scientist they want to talk to — because that’s who published the study they are writing about.

“In a timely manner”? Let’s get real. Countless environmental reporters have pleaded with EPA press officers that they needed an interview with a specific scientist by deadline (which is often the same day or week). And countless reporters have not gotten a response until a week after their deadline. 


Are PIOs really that busy? Or does it 

take time for them to go up the chain of 

political appointees to get the “right” answer?


What’s the hold-up? Are PIOs really that busy? Or does it take time for them to go up the chain of political appointees to get the “right” answer? All too often the “consistency” they provide is consistency with administration political goals and talking points.

“Responsiveness”? Really? More often it is about avoidance of political responsibility. Questions must be in writing. So must answers. Reporters get an anonymous “desk statement.” When a person speaks, it is often required to be “on background,” which ensures that no one can be held responsible. 

Either way, the official answers may be vague and meaningless generalities whose main effect is to be safe.


Does intimidation rule?

This is America. We always thought the First Amendment gave everybody the right of free speech. But agencies like EPA have over the years developed ways to dodge this little snag. 

Like rules limiting scientists to only talking about their own immediate work (not, say, the consensus of their whole field). Or requiring them to distinguish when they are talking about their agency work and when they are just giving a personal opinion. 

The problem is that sometimes reporters call agency scientists because they are tops in their field — and the reporter wants to know what they think of some paper just published by another scientist in the field. It’s like peer review on deadline — incidentally widening the scientific basis of the reporter’s article.

But not if the press office can help it.

Now, to say the quiet part out loud. Intimidation. One reason many EPA scientists won’t talk without press office permission — despite the lack of a written policy saying they can’t. It’s fear. Which is more effective than policy. 

If a press officer sits in on the interview, it will be known by The Authorities if the scientist speaks any unauthorized or inconvenient truth. Minders squash the possibility of candid interviews, even if they don’t say a word. And PIOs will be the last to admit this. 

We haven’t lost all hope. The Biden people, whether in the science office or the press office, may do better. But full and intense engagement by news media representatives as new scientific integrity policies are worked out will be key to improving things. 

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 9. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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