Journalists Still Frustrated At Access To U.S. Scientists

While it’s possible there is no level of access to government scientists that would satisfy journalists, the current levels of access – even in the U.S. – remain a matter of complaint.  The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), soon after releasing its latest report on agency media policies, has issued an early summary of how journalists currently feel about access to government scientists (H/T Government Executive).

Through its Center for Science and Democracy, the UCS worked with the Society for Professional Journalists in developing and conducting the survey.  It’s a follow-up to a 2011 survey conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review and ProPublica.  In the 2011 survey it was found that the Obama Administration had made marginal progress in making agency scientists accessible to journalists.  The 2015 survey suggests not much has changed.  Per the UCS:

  • Public information offices routinely require reporters to get their approval before interviewing employees.
  • Sometimes, when reporters ask to interview a specific subject matter expert, their request for an interview is routed to a different agency employee by the public information office.
  • It’s not unusual for reporters to 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.
  • Despite reporters’ positive working relationships with public information officers, a majority feel that the public is not getting all the information it needs because of the barriers that agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.

Worth noting is that in many respects, science reporters compared favorably to other reporters, according to the Society for Professional Journalists.  From its conclusions:

“The analysis of the science writers’ survey compared with the earlier surveys of political and education reporters indicates the science agencies may be more open and less controlling than other types of government agencies – there may be more protection for scientists to speak openly as opposed to other people. Also, it appears a good number of science writers are better able to develop relationships with their subject matter expert sources than other types of reporters, thus mitigating the public information offices’ efforts at media control.”
So, while there may not be great access to government scientists and the relationships between science journalists and public information officers can be complicated, other fields may not have it so good.

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