Back when workplaces weren’t the most sensitive environments, a former editor of mine was fond of this retort to reporters complaining of roadblocks in getting a story: "Don’t tell me about the labor pains—bring me the baby!" Truth be told, consumers of news might feel the same way—they expect the press to deliver information fast and accurately, and probably don’t care to know about the effort behind the task.
But recent complaints from a group of health care journalists are something readers should pay attention to, because the concerns affect the quality and depth of the national discourse on health policy. And that of course is becoming an increasingly important conversation.
In the early weeks of the Obama presidency, the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) asked the new president to confirm his stated commitment to government agency "transparency" by limiting the role of agency spokespersons in controlling the flow of agency information. Specifically, they asked the White House to restore reporters’ direct access to news sources within federal agencies and to end requirements that have public affairs staff in most agencies directly monitoring journalists’ interviews.
The AHCJ’s Feb. 26 letter stated, "Restrictions on journalists’ access to federal sources have grown during the last two presidential administrations."
As recently as last week, the association and 10 other groups representing journalists renewed their call, this time specifically asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to end requirements that journalists obtain permission from an agency official in order to interview an FDA staffer. Kathryn Foxhall, a member of the AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee who has covered medication issues for Addiction Professional, tells me that some journalists consider the FDA to be a "brick wall" in limiting media access. She added that the FDA is being targeted in part because that agency has established a Transparency Task Force.
So far, the administration does not appear to have been very responsive. And you might argue that the White House has bigger fish to fry. But limited access to key points of view within the federal government is part of the reason why today’s federal policy debate has too much contentiousness and not enough context.
This hits close to home for me. Back when I reported frequently on the annual budget of HHS’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), my stories went from detailed analyses of federal spending goals to bland recitations of numbers after SAMHSA’s mid-level officials were barred from giving reporters unfettered access to their knowledge of the trends behind the numbers. That represented a disservice to readers in the addiction and mental health communities, and frankly served to marginalize the agency.
Yes, journalists can oversimplify complex issues, or even get the story plain wrong sometimes. But limiting access to the very individuals who can educate the media and explain the intricacies of public policy does nothing to improve the situation. All it does is allow the politicians to shape the message with no chance of a more nuanced position to emerge. That serves their interests, not the health care community’s or the public’s.