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Are Relations Between Science Agencies and Science Journalists at a New Low?

A look at past surveys of scientists and journalists shows relations have been deteriorating for some time, and have hit a new low under the Trump administration.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt answers reporters' questions during a briefing at the White House on June 2nd, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt answers reporters' questions during a briefing at the White House on June 2nd, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Is the relationship between science agencies and the journalists who cover them at its worst ever? It certainly seems like it. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a press release calling an Associated Press report—about toxic waste sites flooded by Hurricane Harvey—"misleading" and "yellow journalism." Weeks later, the agency conceded that one of the sites the AP visited was indeed exposing toxic material. Then, last week, the New York Times published a front-page profile of an industry-friendly scientist appointed to the EPA. When the Times asked the agency for comment, a spokeswoman wrote back: "No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece. The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait."

For the EPA press office, such a personal attack "is a real sharp departure from what we've seen in the past," past staffer Dan Fiorino told InsideClimate News.

Exactly how unprecedented is this state of affairs between government science press offices and reporters? A look at past surveys of journalists suggests this isn't a total turnaround. Relations between science journalists and science agencies have been deteriorating over the past several years, with ups and downs along the way. But with the Trump administration, communication seems to have hit a new low: While those charged with communicating the government's research had long been controlling or unresponsive, they had not, prior to the Trump administration, openly expressed contempt or disbelief in journalists' work. Here's a quick look at the recent history.

When the Monitoring Began: The George W. Bush Years

When it comes to science communication, the defining moment of the George W. Bush administration came when Jim Hansen, then the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told the New York Times that press officers were trying to monitor his lectures, papers, website, and interviews with journalists. Hansen thought his press affairs office opposed his calls for drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, to help mitigate climate change. "They feel their job is to be this censor of information going out to the public," Hansen told the Times.

The 2006 Times story noted the oversight Hansen experienced was relatively new. "At climate laboratories of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, many scientists who routinely took calls from reporters five years ago can now do so only if the interview is approved by administration officials in Washington, and then only if a public affairs officer is present or on the phone," reporter Andrew Revkin wrote. But by 2008, a survey of 739 federal researchers, conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that an interview pre-approval process had been implemented in several science-based agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. "The clearance process stifles any spontaneous debate," an anonymous EPA scientist told the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2013.

President George W. Bush, pictured here in 2004.

President George W. Bush, pictured here in 2004.

Some agencies received high marks for freedom of information from the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2008. The National Science Foundation, the United States Geological Survey, and, in fact, NASA all scored well. "It has improved since the Jim Hansen issue," an anonymous NASA scientist told the Union, although others said they still didn't feel free to speak to the media.

Monitoring of interviews by public information officers continues to be a major problem for journalists. In a 2015 survey, a large majority of science journalists said that, at least some of the time, they had to receive official agency approval before talking with a scientist. More than 30 percent said they had to get approval all of the time.

Press-freedom reporter Kathryn Foxhall warns against accepting this new status quo. In an email to Pacific Standard, she writes:

It is just unethical for us to ... not fight for the right to also communicate freely, without notifying authorities, including PIOs.

If we get information under those controls we are at high risk of getting only their official story, and the public may be better off with nothing—whether we know it or not.

Minor Improvements: The Barack Obama Years

In the wake of the Hansen and other science controversies under Bush, President Barack Obama promised he would "restore science to its rightful place." His policies with science journalists, however, were mixed.

In a 2011 survey, conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review and ProPublica, science journalists generally said the Obama administration was better than Bush's about allowing open access to scientists and making data available online.

Still, the reporters were pretty dissatisfied. Thirty percent said the administration was "poor" or "very poor" at transparency (compared to 44 percent who scored the Bush administration poorly). And while officials still pushed to approve interviews often enough that the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Association of Health Care Journalists ran campaigns against the practice, a 2013 Union of Concerned Scientists survey suggests some researchers saw the issue differently. For example, an anonymous scientist from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reported being "encouraged," but not required, to go through the press office. This scientist "almost always" did so because the office offered "useful services and information." Similarly, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist acknowledged that, "if the topic is politically sensitive, there may be some coordination with other agency officials" before they'll talk to a journalist. The scientist said the "coordination is not intended to hide or suppress information."

The latest large survey Pacific Standard found, a 2015 poll of science journalists conducted by the Society of Professional Journalists, shows the results of several presidential terms' worth of press offices monitoring interviews with scientists. Thirty-five percent of respondents said they had been blocked from interviewing a scientist before their deadlines. Fifty-eight percent said they had conducted interviews with minders present at least some of the time. A few described draconian-sounding control during such monitored interviews. One respondent said: "Usually I'm required to submit questions first and then the interviewee is given the answers and not allowed to deviate. If I ask a different question, the person says he/she has to get permission to answer the question or send me the info I've requested."

The news wasn't all bad. Two-thirds of respondents had been able to interview scientists without involving the press office at all, and 64 percent said they had good working relationships with press officers, who helped them contact the right experts. And, for the most part, science journalists reported being able to more freely contact their sources than politics and education reporters, whom the Society of Professional Journalists had previously surveyed.

Science Agencies and Journalists' Special Relationship

Any extra barriers between journalists and federal agencies are cause for concern, even if they're not always unexpected. But the increasing tension between science writers and press offices is noteworthy because of science journalism's unique relationship with its material. That is, science journalism has a two-fold mission that's often absent from, say, political journalism.

The Environmental Protection Agency's logo is displayed on a door at its headquarters on March 16th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

The Environmental Protection Agency's logo is displayed on a door at its headquarters on March 16th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Politics reporters typically assume Americans understand the legislative process, and leave it to readers to form their own opinions. Science journalists aim both to explain science in the world and to hold science agencies accountable. That's a critical job: Most Americans are finished with their science education after high school; science journalism can help people keep up with advances in climate change, health, space science, and more.

To do that kind of reporting, many science writers work closely with press offices. That friendly relationship has its benefits and drawbacks, but we're not going to debate that here: It exists, and its deterioration is noteworthy. After all, it's not just accountability journalism, like the AP and New York Times stories about the EPA, that have met with press-office obstruction. In August, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention press officer sent employees a memo instructing them to get official clearance for even "the most basic of data requests," Axios reported. Insults and taunts by science press officers is attention-grabbing and obviously bad for the public understanding of what agencies are up to. But the quiet, and ongoing, increase in information control may be just as harmful.