Saturday, April 05, 2014

Journalists say federal agencies are too reticent and spokespersons often lack knowledge

The Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed in their responsibility to inform the public in the wake of the West Virginia chemical spill, says Tim Wheeler of The Baltimore Sun and chair of the Freedom of Information Task Force of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Wheeler is quoted by SEJ President Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in his column in the latest SEJournal, the group's magazine. Hopey says more than ever, people "need accurate, factual news delivered as quickly as possible to best assess the risks and threats to their health and the environment. But the public isn’t getting what it needs from federal and state agencies. . . . EPA refused to speak about the contamination for nearly a week, and took several more days to supply information about water quality to local residents thirsty for news." Wheeler said the CDC spoke to some national news outlets, " ignored the local audience most in need of the information and desperate for news about the contamination during that crisis situation."

Hopey says government public-information officers aren't as helpful as they once were. "More and more they seem almost afraid to speak, and when they do are often loath to give out information about research, investigations and ongoing crisis management. Often as not we must deal with PIOs who know little about the subject at hand, or have no authorization or expertise to speak of it." Too many of them come from political campaigns, says Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "We don’t need political operatives in those positions,” he told Hopey. “We need and want someone who believes in the public’s right to know.” (Read more)

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