Next Disaster Government Prevents With Openness May Be Its Own

sw15-hughes-60x80By John Hughes
President, The National Press Club

and

sw14-Cuillier-60x80David Cuillier
Chair, Freedom of Information Committee
Society of Professional Journalists

Last year, federal officials made a startling discovery in a storage room
overseen by the Food and Drug Administration at the National Institutes of
Health campus in Bethesda, Md. As reported by The Washington Post, the
discovery included long-forgotten samples of smallpox along with boxes and
vials of other pathogens, including the virus behind the tropical disease
dengue.

Close to the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
admitted it had had a number of incidents in recent years in which its staff
mishandled live anthrax and other deadly pathogens.

Karen Midthun, director of FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and
Research, said FDA would work to ensure the problem did not happen again.
Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said he would improve agency safety
culture, put stronger oversight in place and encourage workers to report
incidents that happen, according to the Post.

In the spirit of Sunshine Week, we hope both agencies take an additional
step: Encourage their staff to talk openly with the news media.

Staff members at CDC and FDA should not only be open about wrongdoing and
safety breaches. They should discuss the research they are conducting and
facts they are learning as they go about their work on behalf of the
American people. If the agencies had this approach in place before last
year, the discovery of the mishandled pathogens might have been made public
sooner than it was. The agencies might have been quicker to respond.

A lack of openness pervades many federal agencies and goes far beyond
Washington into state and local governments. When information is shared,
unfortunately, it is all too often being done in a limited or selective
manner.

Many federal agencies bar staff from communicating with news media
representatives unless a public information officer is informed and monitors
the conversation. This approach is understandable from the perspective of an
agency that wants to ensure staff communication is consistent with agency
policy. However, the approach discourages or even prevents staff members
from speaking frankly and openly about a subject. Workers fear that the boss
might not like what they have to say.

Federal staff members often fail to appear at a public gathering,
particularly one that is important, unless a public relations official is
with them. Staff members sometimes take on a look of panic when they are
approached by a reporter at a public meeting.

When reporters do connect with government staff, it too frequently is
because they went through a lengthy vetting process with the PR office.
Delays in getting an interview can be so long, the eventual conversation may
be too late to be used for a story.

A 2013 survey sponsored by the National Association of Government
Communicators and the Society of Professional Journalists found that 40
percent of public-information officers admitted to blocking reporters
because of “problems” with those journalists’ previous stories. A 2012
survey by SPJ found that 70 percent of reporters who cover federal agencies
consider such controls to be overt censorship.

John Donnelly, chairman of the National Press Club’s Press Freedom
Committee, noted earlier this year that the Pentagon has barred reporters
from embedding on military missions against Islamic State targets, and that
the Defense Department is restricting access to information about conditions
at its prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“In the United States,” Donnelly wrote, “reporters do not face physical
threats so much as an expanding set of insidious, bureaucratic efforts to
stymie journalists.”

Limits on reporters’ direct contact with agency staff may seem positive at
first glance from the agency perspective. Potential stories agency leaders
view as negative may seem to have been blocked. But in fact, because
disclosure is delayed, problems within agencies may linger for a longer
period and eventually spiral into larger public embarrassments. Indeed, a
lack of free reporting may even conceal trouble from agency leadership and
the Presidential administration itself.

How many past government scandals benefited from a delay in disclosing them
or talking about them? We can’t think of any.

Since the nation’s founding, free speech has been crucial to a
well-functioning democracy. An important part of free speech is the ability
of employees of the government, as well as other entities funded by
taxpayers, to tell the public through the press what’s going on. When
leaders block that avenue, they hurt democracy and potentially let problems
fester.

Journalists, elected officials, public employees and taxpayers must insist
on reversing these controls on information. It is, after all, Sunshine Week.
Reach out to a journalist. Be helpful. Take speech restrictions off
employees. Your public — your democracy — will thank you.

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