Journalists Ask FDA: Open Flow of Information

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration received a letter last week from journalists asking for more freedom in interviewing the agency's employees.

If you want better treatment, you have to ask for it. That seems to be the driving sentiment behind a December 2 letter from eleven journalism organizations to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asking the agency to shape up its policies on interacting with the press.

The Association of Health Care Journalists, the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the National Freedom of Information Coalition along with seven other groups have written the FDA to say they “strongly urge the Food and Drug Administration to end practices that restrict the flow of information to the public.”

According to the groups’ press release, they are demanding that the FDA “end requirements that journalists and FDA employees notify or obtain permission from an agency official in order to conduct an interview.” The groups, along with more than two dozen individual journalists who cosigned the letter, say that “These relatively new practices hinder reporters’ ability to learn the truth by inhibiting and sometimes barring employees from providing essential information.”

Even more serious, they write, is the growing practice of monitoring or insisting public relations officers listen in on employees’ conversations with journalists. Knowing a PR observer is listening in, employees might be inhibited or withhold potentially essential information

The letter doesn’t denigrate the role of public information officers and the PR infrastructure. Information officers can be extremely helpful and play an important role, especially when a journalist specifically seeks them out, the group writes. “But when they forbid, delay or monitor contact between reporters and employees, they interfere with the public’s right to know.”

“The free flow of information is essential to democracy. But in matters of health, even more is at stake: the ability of citizens to live healthful and productive lives,” the letter posits, implying that the FDA’s policies of restricting journalists’ access to freely question the agency’s experts endangers not just journalism, but also public health.  “These practices are a disservice to Americans,” the authors write.

And while such practices may be increasing, the letter states, they haven’t always been the standard. Taking President Obama up on some of his early promises of a more transparent government, the group writes “Nearly all prior administrations allowed open communication between agency employees and the media. The FDA should restore this policy… In keeping with President Obama’s promise to make government more transparent and accountable, we hope FDA will end these harmful practices and restore the free flow of information.”

Check out the open letter here.

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Journalists Ask FDA for Open Flow of Information

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