The EPA’s Closed Door: Penetrating the Government Bureaucracy

           This week, we’ll get a chance to explore a pivotal government agency first-hand: The EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory. Though taxpayer dollars fund government employees, reporters can find it challenging to get the real scoop when looking to government agencies for environmental stories. As many of this week’s readings point out, documents can be doctored and sanitized and press conferences can be cut short before reporters can ask their tough questions. This Columbia Journalism Review article and this one highlight that dilemma. Also, make sure to check out the word file on C-Tools, “Clouding Climate Science.” As a reporter, how do you navigate these difficulties? The major topic for this week’s class is coverage of the automobile industry, and environmentally friendly vehicles in particular. This piece highlights some of the deficiencies in such coverage. As you look at this article, this one, and this one, written by one of our speakers, what struck you about the structure? What questions do they raise for discussion? A major topic for the guest speakers will be the falsification of mileage claims articulated in this article and this one. What questions do you have about the way they addressed the issue? And finally, what are your thoughts for students on how John Stewart tackles energy independence?

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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.

6 Responses to “The EPA’s Closed Door: Penetrating the Government Bureaucracy”

  1. I had no idea of the difficulty and hurdles reporters must endure just to extract information from governmental agencies that ideally should be willing to have their information published and available to the public. Navigating these difficulties can be as tedious, but really requires constant phoning, emailing, and demanding information, and not backing down until it is retrieved. Although coming off as annoying, reporters who do not take “no” for an answer often get the better story with more facts that serve the story purpose.
    The article from Yahoo! on the Chevy Volt raises the issue of why GM has refused to offer rebates and incentives for consumers paying the higher sticker price. Also, why are consumers so unwilling to adjust to higher prices and better emission standards, all well knowing that the pay off will reach them and the environment several years down the road? Although it is difficult to change societal attitudes towards cars and spending on them, if there’s any time to do it, it’s now.
    The Wall Street Journal article on mileage also raises questions like why don’t the car companies go out into the real world to test mileage instead of relying on real-world conditions in laboratories? Why do consumers feel the need to know the exact MPG of the car they want to buy and then get upset or excited when that number is lower or higher than they were told? As the article suggests, mileage is just an estimate and there are too many confounding variables to give an exact number where a range would be more appropriate. Why don’t the car companies try to articulate this to the public?
    Addressing the issue of mileage on the articles about Hyundai and Kia, I found it rather amusing that the EPA was so shocked to find they only a 1-2 discrepancy average on MPG reported by the companies. In my opinion, this is hardly significant and not that shocking, since mileage varies so much from user to user of the same car. The author of the Forbes piece did issue a warning to the car companies because of this news, and that just signals that car companies should be more careful and conduct better testing before posting information that large audiences will be using to make large purchases on cars.
    Jon Stewart making fun of the failures of the past eight presidencies to make any real change simply illustrate the lack of connection between words and actions when it comes to actually changing the way try to reduce our carbon footprint. The sound bytes are all too similar, with each president comes great hope for some change, finally. But America continues to be disappointed, and it’s not just the public that sighs and groans, but the Earth suffers too, and suffers more. As journalists we have already been successful in putting the issue out there, albeit with the difficulties of lack of transparency, but they are out there nonetheless. We’re on the cusp of change, and actions are the next step.

  2. Gabby:
    You make some very interesting points here. When we’re at the lab, I hope you will ask the EPA speaker your question about why don’t the car companies don’t do real world testing and rely on lab data.

  3. I found the “Transparency Watch: A Closed Door” article by Chris Brainard to be quite disturbing. It is worrisome how difficult it is to get access to science information and the lack of transparency causes the public to lose trust in both the government and science.

    The move towards open access science will hopefully translate to transparency in government agencies as well. Journalists should have the skill set of detectives but they shouldn’t have to use extensive detective work to get important parts of the story revealed that should be more easily accessible in the first place. I believe that the scientists and government agencies should be responsible for contributing to the spectrum of journalism work. They make the information accessible so the journalists can then relay it to the public.

    Where do you think the responsibility of communication with the public lies?

  4. I found Colombia Journalism’s article, “Transparency Watch: A Closed Door” particularly interesting as well. It surprised me how little I knew of the government’s secrecy and how there is so little accountability for government officials, even those extremely close to or under the President. The lack of accountability among these high ranking positions proves it is even more significant that journalists persist in asking difficult questions so that the public is informed. If journalists, of which it’s their job is to relay information between different groups, aren’t bold enough to dig for the truth, then who will be?

    Furthermore, when reading the automotive articles, I noticed that some were saturated with numbers without providing much context as to why the numbers were significant. The article, “Weak Chevy Volt sales…” discussed a lot about the quantity of cars that weren’t being sold, yet I was wondering, how many cars of a more popular model are sold each month? A comparison would help readers such as myself draw more accurate conclusions about the issue. Also, I would question the EPA’s test program, asking what it (and the varying test conditions) includes and requires of cars, as well as who conducts the tests and how long the test duration is (since the given number is averaged). In addition, who supervises the tests and, is there any method in place to ensure accuracy? Based off the article “Why Your Car’s Mileage May Not Always Measure Up” and “Transparency Watch,” I remain skeptical at the information the government presents and how forthcoming its officials are.

  5. Thought the governments secrecy may be a surprise to some, it is not so surprising to me (only because I have done a little investigation on some issues). What it sadly comes down to is money, and many large companies have a highly vested interest in keeping the empirical, scientific data concealed. I’d like to think that if the American public knew the full extent to how much pollution and corruption goes on within larger corporations in America, there would be a larger backlash than what is seen currently.
    I also think that without a critical eye, one can read some articles and take them for face value, without trying to understand what facts were left out and why the article itself was worded in a certain way. Either side of any issue is going to attempt to put a spin on their perspective of the issue to sway the readers, but if readers do not scrutinize, they could fall into the cleverly worded trap. Though steps are taken to make the government and its organizations more transparent, the are ways, and I would even speculate that the laws are written specifically in this way, to get around some of the transparency. In the article talked about the EPA moving slowly with the Freedom of Information Act, that clearly impedes the distribution of information. Even if a party/group finally received information from the government, it may have taken such a long time that the public has lost interest, thus losing its support.
    I am actually working with a group called Students for Clean Energy through the University of Michigan, and they were able to ask for the investment information for the university to implore them to divest in fossil fuels. The university provided some information, but were able to leave out key aspects that impeded SFCE from formulating a solid argument against it. It seems that it is not complete freedom, but rather, picking and choosing what information they would like to distribute.

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