EPA, environmental reporters in tussle over access to experts

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 The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Society of Environmental Journalists both have the word “environmental” in their names.

But the comparison should stop there.

One is a federal agency. The other is a nonprofit group, which I belong to, that is dedicated to helping improve the quality and visibility of environmental journalism.

The agency and journalism group are knocking heads over the way EPA rolled out its announcement on June 2 of a plan to reduce carbon emissions.

On June 5, SEJ fired off a letter objecting to the EPA holding a “background conference call with reporters,” meaning that agency officials who spoke on the call were not to be named by reporters.

“We journalists are personally accountable for what we report about EPA’s actions,” the group wrote. “Why aren’t your staff members just as accountable for what they tell us?”

EPA Assistant Administrator Tom Reynolds responded on June 10 that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is available regularly to the media. He listed a number of interviews she had given the previous week, most of them with national media.

The “background briefing,” Reynolds wrote, “was intended to provide reporters with the opportunity to ask specific technical questions regarding the details of the proposal.”

The Society of Environmental Journalists on June 12 responded to Reynolds that he had missed the point of the group’s earlier letter. (The letters are posted online at SEJ.org.)

The group said there is a difference between putting the administrator out for interviews and providing “unfettered access” to scientific experts.

“We understand that government public affairs staff view one-way communication as a preferred way to achieve message control,” SEJ wrote. “But you also may understand that reporters are rarely satisfied to be mere stenographers, and that professional standards of duty do not allow them merely to reprint press releases.”

I can only hope that Florida’s state agencies, which have been gradually restricting news media access to staff since the mid-1990s, will learn from the exchange. I hope they will always make their experts readily available with the freedom to broadly discuss issues.

But Florida’s news media also have a responsibility: To maintain beat reporters who can provide thorough, fair and responsible coverage of state agencies. Few newspapers in the state continue to have full-time environmental beat reporters and many have cut back on state government reporting.

Without strong beat coverage, the agencies that are beholden to politicians win through message control. And the press, along with public understanding of issues, loses.