Science writers have a hard time getting candid information from government scientists. While the public information office sometimes helps connect the two, the PIO also can interfere with the reporting process to the point of keeping the public from getting all the information it needs. These are some of the findings of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee’s latest survey of reporters about their relationship with government public information offices. The survey of science writers was released April 9 at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The survey was cosponsored by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Among other things, the science writers survey found that:
• Almost three quarters (74.2%) of respondents said that PIOs require reporters to get their approval before interviewing employees at least some of the time.
• More than half (52.2%) said that when they ask to interview a specific subject matter expert, their request for an interview is routed to a different agency employee by the PIO at least some of the time.
• 67.5% said they have to make multiple requests for information and interviews when they go through the public information office to get access to a subject matter expert at least some of the time.
• Reporters who got an interview often found the PIO sitting in on the interview either on the telephone or in person (31.8% some of the time, 19.5% most of the time, 6.5% all of the time).
• However, many science writers have figured out ways to interview subject matter experts without involving the public information office (34.2% some of the time, 21.9% most of the time, 10.3% all of the time). Often, these are people they cornered at a conference or meeting, or had a long-term relationship with.
Kathryn Foxhall, an SPJ FOI Committee member who has made a study of the PIO issue, said at Thursday’s conference that the problem of reporters being required to go through the PIO to talk to government employees is becoming widespread in recent years.
“Most basically, when reporters are required to go through PIOs to talk to anyone, the source people know they are under surveillance by the official structure and that changes everything. Likely enough, there is someone in the agency who could blow the whole story out of the water if the PIOs weren’t tracking who is talking to which reporter,” she said.
“Maybe the most frequent problem is not about hiding malfeasance. It may be the constant blockage of pieces of our education, so the whole understanding is weak,” she said. “However, often enough there is also just stone-cold manipulation of the message according to insiders’ ideas and desires, including political purposes.”
The report released April 9, which included survey results from science writers, was the fourth in a series of reports from the FOI committee since 2012. The first surveyed Washington¬‐area reporters who covered federal agencies. The second surveyed members of the Education Writers Association and the third was a national survey of state and local political reporters. FOI Committee member Carolyn Carlson led the research for these surveys.