The Government’s Gatekeepers

One of the greatest challenges you face as an environmental journalist is covering a government agency: The Environmental Protection Agency. This week’s readings focus on the steps journalists must take to get information from the EPA. Science writer Janet Raloff discusses some of the frustrations she experienced when an EPA press conference was cut abruptly short in this article. In this article, she discusses an attempt to censor climate change information. What do you think about her approach to discussing this issue of the government’s role in disseminating information? Based on her article, and Curtis Brainard’s, do you feel the current administration is trying to minimize the amount of information available to the press?  How do the Raloff and Brainard pieces compare in the way they communicated this information? Joe White’s Wall Street Journal article discusses how the government’s new fuel economy standards may not be as tough as they seem. How do you feel he tackled the issue? Did this present you with information you didn’t already know? Was it objective, thorough and balanced?  Did you feel this Los Angeles Times article was well-written and easily understandable? Please share your thoughts.

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About jhalpert

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience writing for national publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, CNNMoney.com, iVillage, Fortune.com, and AARP Bulletin. She currently contributes regularly to over 25 publications. She is also the co-author of Making Up With Mom (http://www.makingupwithmom.com/) and has recently started blogging for The Huffington Post. Her subjects have focused on everything from how auto makers will reinvent themselves following bankruptcy, to the viability of various environmentally-friendly technologies and how boomers will reinvent retirement. She also covers parenting and family issues for such magazines as Parents, Family Circle, MORE and Redbook. She has reported on the air for many public radio programs, including The Environment Report, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She also co-teaches an environmental journalism class in the University of Michigan's Program in the Environment and was a founder of The Society of Environmental Journalists.

20 Responses to “The Government’s Gatekeepers”

  1. What do you think about her approach to discussing this issue of the government’s role in disseminating information?
    I liked Janet Raloff’s blog post about the EPA and press access–I think this is an incredibly important issue, and one that most citizens don’t take seriously enough. Raloff mentioned all of the points that I find most revealing about the lack of press access in government agencies. She said that this is about informing the public, which it should be, because they are the ones funding agencies like the EPA. The amount of information that is not available to the paying public is frightening.

    I really like the WSJ article on mileage and how feasible it is by 2025. The article was very fact-based, which I always appreciate, because it gives me the opportunity to decide for myself what I think about the issue. The journalist did a good job of showing all the sides of the issue, and giving all of the pertinent information to the readers. I thought it was very balanced and objective, without adding personal opinion.

  2. After reading these articles, my biggest question was simply why? Why do government agencies limit journalists’ and the public’s access to information? Why is there a lack of transparency? I understand if an agency cannot release information on the grounds of security, or if certain studies and/or investigation are not finished. There has to be other possible explanations, and I feel none of the articles explored these alternatives.

    I really enjoyed Janet Raloff’s article. I thought she brought up several great points in her argument, especially the fact that it is the public loses out when agencies deny access to information. We are, after all, the ones paying their salaries. I also like the end of her Federal Research Censorship article where she mentions that the Agriculture Department has the most transparency and unrestricted access to information. I have found this to be true based on our FOIA exercise where I had contacted the USDA’s Rural Development Grants agency in Michigan. I heard back from them very quickly and received all the information I had requested.

  3. Like Stephanie, this issue kind of angers me. I know this is so immature but I’m the type of person that hates being left out of the loop and I constantly frustrate myself because I know I don’t have all the answers to everything in the world and because I know I never will — BUT — when it comes to information that technically I am paying for, that I am legally entitled to hear, that sheds light on some serious issues concerning the environment; I shouldn’t be left out! None of us should, plain and simple. As Raloff suggests, so much information is omitted from the public it’s hard to ever know if what we are being told is truthful or not. Raloff claims that public affairs offices in many federal agencies “manage” reporters’ access to the data and assessments of their scientists on a regular basis and that the losers of these situations are we the public. Truth be told, sister! When information that is presented to us has gone through layers and layers of filtering and censoring, we lose. We lose our rights to information, and we lose our rights to the truth. However, to argue against Raloff, it could be said that too much information can be hazardous for the public. I think the way that the government treats us is similar to how a teacher treats her students- she nurtures them, she looks after them but she protects them from the truth because sometimes the truth is scary, and sometimes the truth hurts. For example, if there was a major cataclysmic event that was to occur in the foreseeable future that would spell the destruction of the entire world- would it best for the government to tell us about it? In a way, yes it would be. I know that if something like that would happen, I would want to be with my family and loved ones and do things that I’ve always wanted to do but were scared to. That sounds like probably the best way to go about it. HOWEVER, imagine the chaos, the anarchy that would ensue if such kind of information was released to the public. People would be more violent than ever and the damage that would be caused to the earth from the chaos would probably spell the world’s doom before the cataclysm ever even happened. So in a way, I’m kind of neutral about this situation. I think information should be honest but I also recognize that it is a governmental priority to protect the sanctity and sanity of the public.

  4. Similar to the previous posters, I am very much concerned by the lack of transparency between governmental agencies and the press. As Neil stated above, any of us who pay taxes are techically paying for these organizations and paying the salaries of those who work for them. Why then, do they not see the need to cooperate with the public to get information out there? To me, when people try to hide knowledge it screams that there is a problem.

    As Janet stated in her post, the public is who gets hurt by these actions. An uninformed public is not good for anyone. They cannot make educated decisions, criticisms, or come up with potential ideas. I hope that this is not becoming a trend in journalism, because I think it would really hurt anyone who cares about a specific topic.

    I like how she covered this incident. She was not rude, but laid out what happened and how she felt that the EPA officials took advantage of the fact that the reporters were on a teleconference and simply ended it. I wonder if this kind of thing happens at traditional press conferences. I have a feeling that since we are moving away from face-to-face communication, it may be easier for people to simply blow off reporters. It’s an interesting way to think about the role that technology plays in today’s media.

  5. It hit me while reading Janet Raloff’s blog and article just how important journalists are, especially when acting as liaisons between large agencies and the public. We would have very little information and that is a scary thought. We would be left to shuffle through those documents that government agencies made public and try to decipher their meanings. It is not as if I didn’t appreciate journalists before, but this really got me thinking about a world without journalists and how miserable that would be.

    I would not say that the current administration is working to minimize the information available to the public, but I would say they aren’t working to become any more transparent than past administrations. I think reading Raloff’s article was better because it highlighted a lot of different government agencies, where Brainard’s article focused more specifically on Obama himself. I think there is an ease in attacking a single person rather than spending the time to dissect and evaluate parts of the government. Yes, he is the commander in chief, but there are a lot of other heads of agencies that are involved in transparency too. Raloff did a better job of assessing components of the issues of transparency.

    I would pose this question to the class, “When large government issues arise it is easy for the public to blame the most visible person in the government, the president. As a journalist what aspects of reporting can help the public see the government as a system of individual parts working together? Is this important to help the public see the government in this way? What responsibility do journalists have to both educate and inform the public rather than just telling a story as they see it happen?”

  6. I also liked the blog by Raloff — sometimes blogs from people on the scene are such a good way to get information. The brief media conference raises the question: what do they have to hide? If there is nothing to hide (which definitely should be true) why not at least describe the project, or give a handout to those in attendance, or something! Is it really necessary to leave journalists in the dark? Because as a result we, the general public, are left in the dark.

    The problem with a lack of information, like in this case, is that it leaves a whole lot of room for independent bloggers to jump on the issue and just write opinions, rather than facts. Like I said above, SOMETIMES blogs are a great way to gather information; however, without a base, these personal columns can get way out of hand. So we ultimately need agencies like the EPA to help journalists so they in turn can help us.

    I think the LA times article was actually very easy to understand. They did a good job of introducing the topic directly — which made the rest of the article far easier to understand. For the most part they kept statistics out of the article, which left less up for debate.

  7. After reading the first blog I think we ultimately lose when this kind of approach is taken to journalists. As Janet Raloff points out “the big loser is the public. We get to serve as its voice, asking the questions our readers or listeners would like to if they were here”. I think this always holds true – when journalists are under-informed we all lose because they are our ears in those situations.

    I think “closing the door” is a little harsh in describing what they are doing; I just think it makes their day easier if they don’t have to answer the hard questions – so they don’t. The quality and quantity of information definitely needs to be improved in this area though. But how can this happen if they are not required to share with journalists?

    Finally, I think the last two articles do a great job of delivering facts to us. I’m literally sick of reading political articles – which are always left vs. right — it was nice to just read a factual article from which I could formulate my own opinions.

  8. The articles about getting information from researchers or agencies are very interesting, and I appreciate Raloff’s straightforwardness. Through her articles I can feel her frustration with the process and the mediators in between. Raloff’s emotions are very clear and present, and its nice to read something that doesn’t seem so polished. While Raloff’s article is written in more of a blog style, Brainard’s is in a much more sophisticated style, addressing the concern as a public interest rather than just effecting him and other journalists. On one hand I prefer Raloff’s article because of the blatant honesty, which allows me to feel the depth of her affection by the matter. On the other hand, I like Brainard’s article because of the more general context and because of how he addresses the issue as a problem for the nation, not just for the press.

    I also think that the Wall Street Journal article about fuel emissions policies was well written and very informative. While the author did a good job of relaying information of how motor companies can get away through a lot of loop holes, it was also articulated that differences are being made. The information was presented in understandable terms, as opposed to very technical terms, which made it a good article to read, and very helpful. Although I know the position of the writer, I think White did a good job of showing both sides.

  9. I liked Raloff’s article because it brought to light an important issue in a blunt and honest way. It should be brought to people’s attention that agencies are denying journalist’s information and thus limiting the information that makes it to the public. It was nice to read something that was more emotional and one sided, to hear a journalist speaking as a person rather than speaking as a medium between agency and public. Brainard’s article was just as poignant, though in a different way. He went straight to the issue of how this affects the public, rather than just focusing on journalistic frustration. As I said, limiting information to journalists ultimately limits what the people know.
    The WSJ was a good piece in that it was informative and easy to understand, and didn’t seem to take a strong emotional side one way or another. The author did a good job of keeping the article easy to read and not dry or tedious, which is something that happens very often in this kind of journalism. Same with the LAT article, I was able to understand it even though I don’t know any of the technical background. Both of these did a good job of taking an important and complex issue and making it understandable for their readers.

  10. I thought it was interesting how the Raloff blog described these press conferences, especially considering “the reporters who take part don’t publish in materials that actually run through presses.” The press conference she explains sounds like it was disorganized and too short. I was intrigued by this. Why would governmental organizations not want to take the time to answer more reporter’s questions? Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to accurately explain certain topics so that the media could represent them properly? How does a lack of accessible information affect the public’s opinion of governmental organizations?

    I think the public should have the right to know what is being done by governmental organizations, such as the EPA. Better access to information will not only keep the public informed but also ensure that agencies are accurately represented. Accessibility of scientific information is crucial when thinking about climate change issues. In order to increase the public awareness about environmental problems, we first need to know the details behind these issues.

    • Also I didn’t realize that one of the readings for this week was about the Hyundai and Kia overstatement of gas mileage before I did my blog post. The LA Times article provides another interesting viewpoint on this issue.

  11. I side with Janet’s frustrations, because the government is ultimately depriving its citizens of information that they absolutely have the right to know. If we are expected to make informed decisions, we need to be informed, and not halfway, but fully. It seems like most of these government agencies, including the EPA, want to feed citizens their filtered versions of the truth–the ones that will keep people at bay and evade any upheavals. It is secretive and disheartening to have the supposition that this is how our government agencies disseminate information.

    Based on this perceived secrecy, how do you think journalists can break through the barrier between the government and the public?

    How can the public get the full story on issues? Will it take a change of heart of policy makers? If not a change of heart, can people impel law changes so that the government is obliged to fully disclose information to the public?

    Do you think individual efforts to gather information like sending FOIA requests, will chip away at the barrier? Such requests will bemuse the individual and draw attention to the issue, but will it be enough to prompt better transparency?

    If the government is not even willing to change their attitude on sharing information with the public, is this even a solvable problem?

    Thinks to think about.

    Abby

  12. Federal agencies that don’t coordinate well with each other, let alone within themselves can create great harm to the public. Regulation for multiple agencies and the fight against secrecy may sometimes have conflicting interests especially considering the effect of the Revolving Door.

    When speaking of Obama’s administration with the EPA, Brainard says the, “…transparency problem not only affects access to federal scientists and highly politicized environmental and medical science. It’s also about access to government documents and databases, and basic research.” But the ability to convey accurate information, especially with journalists can be problematic because so much information may be stemming from biased sources.

    Regulatory powers? Brainard’s article mentions the parallels of the expected transparency and progress of the FDA and the EPA. The integrity and openness are challenged but is what is required of these agencies to function at their best level and make the most progress sometimes conflicting? When partnering or working with the industry at play (the Auto-industry with the EPA and the food/drug-industry with the FDA), transparency is preferred in order for the market to understand to the fullest extent but can be a dichotomy necessary to make progress but can convolute and create a mess of the same intention.

    When is information too much information? And how does would this affect the free market in an ideal world if all secrets are revealed?

  13. While reading these articles, I realized that presenting information about the EPA and it’s regulations requires a lot of detail before anyone will ever understand what the big picture is. It took me a while to understand what standards the EPA has for gas mileages and how companies can get around it. Even though the last article covered the issue with some data, I feel like there can be more given.

    In my opinion, the EPA should not be allowed to restrict how much information is given to the press. The “gatekeepers” need to understand that in this day and age when protecting the environment is a very important goal, the public, scientists and the gatekeepers need to work together in order to understand the issue. If the public is left in the dark, they’re efforts in conserving energy and protecting the environment will be hindered.

  14. I too am confused as to why the government holds such discretion over issues, especially those that focus on the sciences. The EPA and all governmental organizations should be liable to allow public access. The only conclusion I can make is that they are hiding things. What are they hiding?

    Before the Bush Administration, the government had to release public records on certain private government affairs after 25 years from the said affair. I know that near the end of the Bush administration, Bush pushed the number of years to 99. (This is assuming I remember my facts correctly). It was done such that most people who were around when such an event occurred, would not be around after 99 years and could not question it.

    It is understandable that the government keeps certain science information private due to national security or the public not being ready for it, but at the same time, things like the environment that affect all of us should be freely released to the public without question. For example, I also know that private science is roughly 25-40 years ahead of public science meaning that the next best thing is hear, but just not allowed to be publicly released. So I will play devil’s advocate and ask, how much, if any, is the EPA protecting us by keeping some records private? Do journalists push too hard to get the truth? And are we even ready to actually hear the entire truth?

  15. Without question, I have to agree with nearly every statement/question brought up so far by my fellow classmates. With that said, however, let’s play devil’s advocate: Raloff’s article may shed light an important issue about the restriction that journalist’s face in gathering and obtaining information on governmental agencies, but who’s to say that disclose cannot work for good?

    In a world where information is saturating everything, and not always explained fully, wouldn’t it seem within the government’s best interest to possibly limit the content that available? Without this filter, who journalists be necessary?

    But, we can only play devil’s advocate for so long. With journalists currently working as liaisons between large agencies and the public, their role in environmental justice does not go unnoticed. Articles produced on the subject in discussion lend to further reader’s knowledge-base and in-turn seek to strengthen their impact in improving environmental standards. The WSJ article does a great job of presenting information that would educate readers, rather than push them into an opinion.

  16. Just to reply to Clancey’s comment, I would agree that we are in an over saturated era of information, but the majority of the information isn’t factual, is tainted or is biased in some way. I think it’s frustrating when the government does in fact present information and its authenticity is questioned (that’s a different story). But if the gov presented more information and was in fact more transparent, I think we would have some info out there that we could reasonably count on.

    But I agree it’s ridiculous the disconnect between government (and government entities) and journalists. For example, the University is able to deny many of the Daily’s FOIA requests because it knows the Daily doesn’t have the resources to sue for them – even though the information should be public knowledge. As we saw with our FOIA requests, much goes unanswered. I haven’t received anything from the City of Ann Arbor, which isn’t exactly Washington DC.

    Though we deserve info, at the same time we should question why we want it. Will it really do the public good? Or will it cause more problems? These are difficult questions and a journalist’s responsibility to answer for themselves.

  17. To play devil’s advocate – what incentive does the EPA have to talk to reporters? Many things can be twisted and convey things to the reader that were not intended, especially in the case of touchy issues like climate change. Unless the researcher signs off on every paper written from his/her press conference and says it is factual, how can a researcher know that his words aren’t being twisted? The Raloff makes the point that the research is being paid for by the public’s tax dollars, but that doesn’t mean that everyone automatically supports the research being done.

    Just my thoughts.

  18. I also enjoyed Raloff’s article and blog post. I knew that agencies are often not the most transparent or easily accessible entities, but her experience at the press conference was surprising to me! I wasn’t aware that that situation was relatively commonplace. Raloff makes a good point that journalists represent the public voice and are often the medium between agencies and the public. When journalists are unable to access information from agencies, the public loses. In his article, Brainard makes a similar point, that the public suffers unfairly as a result of a lack of agency transparency, especially because he makes the point that “all the information that the EPA has about its inspections, its enforcement, its science-that belongs to the public.” I’m wondering, what avenues can the public and journalists take to encourage agency transparency? And without information on science, regulations, etc. how can the public hold agencies accountable for their activities and duties? Should individuals use journalists and the media to demand increased transparency or should the public appeal to the agency itself?

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