The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences joins the growing list of federal scientific agencies where the public affairs office urges federal employees not to answer questions from reporters.
Congressional committees this year have held several hearings about press office censorship of agency science under the Bush administration at agencies like NOAA, NASA, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. An NIEHS document obtained by the WatchDog adds NIEHS to that list.
The key instruction in the memo is that any NIEHS employee contacted by a reporter is to get the reporter's name and phone number, "end the call" immediately, and call the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL).
While the memo does not literally instruct staff not to talk to reporters or not to answer questions, it encourages them not to "feel pressured to give an immediate answer."
Christine Bruske-Flowers, Director of OCPL, said the memo was intended as "recommendations, not requirements." She said that some scientists were unused to talking to news media, and that the memo was meant to aid them. "We want our folks to talk to the press and we encourage that," she said.
She said it had been circulated after new staff asked for guidance on how to respond to press calls, and that it would be misleading to suggest that NIEHS was trying to prevent staff from talking to reporters.
After an employee tells OCPL of a press call, OCPL press officers then call the reporter, compile a list of questions the reporter intends to ask, and script a response to each question in consultation with NIEHS administrators and scientists. OCPL then gets clearance from higher ups at the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services (presumably political appointees) for the response to each question. OCPL also determines who will answer the reporter's questions - whether the original person to whom the question was addressed, or someone else.
The document, under an NIEHS logo, is titled "When a reporter calls ..." and has been repeatedly circulated by e-mail to all NIEHS staff. The most recent version was sent March 12, 2007, and was sent to "firstname.lastname@example.org." Previous versions of the document were in circulation as early as Sept. 14, 2005. Bruske said the memo was generated partly in response to the surge of press inquiries following Hurricane Katrina.
Here is the text of the entire document:
"When a reporter calls...
Don't feel pressured to give an immediate answer to any question. Reporters expect professionals like you to be busy, so it's OK to get answers to reporters through follow-up calls. This gives everyone time to prepare a clear and concise response. Be polite, but don't be pushed. Here's how...
1. Get the reporter's name, organization, and telephone number:
"Can you please tell me your name and who you work for?" (it's OK to ask for the correct spelling)
"And, what is your telephone number?"
2. End the call:
"Thanks for your call, someone from our communications office will get back to you."
(reporters are accustomed to this response)
3. Contact NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL):
Christine Bruske-Flowers (Director, OCPL) 541-3665
Robin Mackar at 541-0073
4. OCPL staff will contact the reporter, identify what information is being requested, and will prepare a list of questions the reporter intends to ask.
5. OCPL staff will work with NIEHS staff (which may be you and others) to formulate a response to each inquiry.
The communications staff is here to help NIEHS leaders, researchers and program administrators formulate a clear, concise response to questions from news reporters.
6. OCPL staff will obtain the necessary NIH/DHHS clearances for responding to each inquiry.
7. OCPL staff will contact the appropriate NIEHS staff and/or researcher (which may be you) and will schedule a return call to the reporter:
The communications staff can work with you to prepare you for your interview. Sometimes, OCPL staff will answer questions from reporters.
8. OCPL staff will search for the resulting news story and will provide it to everyone involved in responding to the reporter's call."
- Previous Stories: WatchDogs of April 4, 2007, April 18, 2007, May 30, 2007, May 16, 2007, and May 2, 2007.
- "When a reporter calls ...," NIEHS OCPL, March 12, 2007 (original pdf file requires Adobe Acrobat reader).