Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reporters say federal data, officials are increasingly off limits under the Obama administration

A growing number of reporters say that when seeking information from government agencies, they get the run-around, especially when it involves stories the Obama administration fears will hurt public support for a project, Paul Farhi reports for The Washington Post.

"Tensions between reporters and public information officers—'hacks and flacks' in the vernacular—aren’t new, of course. Reporters have always wanted more information than government officials have been willing or able to give," Farhi writes. "But journalists say the lid has grown tighter under the Obama administration, whose chief executive promised in 2009 to bring 'an unprecedented level of openness' to the federal government."

One example involves Dina Cappiello, who as the national environment writer for the Associated Press met a stone wall when she asked the Interior Department for federal data about bird deaths on wind-energy farms in 2013, Farhi writes. Cappiello, who still hasn't received an answer, believes that because the Obama administration supports the development of wind power, releasing data that wind farms kill large numbers of protected species, such as eagles and falcons, will hurt public support.

Cappiello has received similar treatment on other stories unpopular with the Obama administration, Farhi writes. She told Farhi, “I think the thread here is that all of these stories are questioning the goals and policies of the administration. All of these have the potential to set off controversy.”

Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward had to wait a week to get an official comment from the Environmental Protection Agency about the Elk River water’s potability in relation to the January 2014 chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 residents in West Virginia.

But not all instances involve major news, Farhi writes. Linda Petersen, managing editor of the Valley Journals newspapers in the Salt Lake City area, said when she called the parks and recreation department to find out what time the Easter egg hunt started, she was told by an employee, “I’ve been instructed not to talk to a reporter ever about anything.”

Those reporters are not alone, Farhi writes. The Society of Professional Journalists conducted a study in 2012 of 146 reporters who covered government, finding that 76 percent "said they had to get approval from a public information officer before speaking to an agency employee; two-thirds said they were prohibited by the agency from interviewing an employee at least some of the time. The vast majority—85 percent—agreed with this statement: 'The public is not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.'"

Most federal agencies received poor grades on the Center for Effective Government's second annual Access to Information Scorecard for responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. But funds are available to journalists to fight freedom of information requests.

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