The EPA goes on background, and journalists revolt

When the Environmental Protection Agency released the Clean Power Plant Proposal last week, which some are suggesting may signify a tipping point in clean energy regulation, it released the plan with some hoopla: A series of documents dropped Monday morning to journalists, after the story was leaked Sunday accompanied by an open press call with technical experts to break down the plan. But the reporters covering the story took issue with one aspect of the rollout: The whole press call was ‘on background.’

Giving information that way is a common, often unavoidable, tool, especially for journalists covering policy, allowing sources to dole out information that they can’t attach their names to but that gets journalists up to speed. Yet used too broadly, as some reporters say is happening increasingly within the Obama administration, information on background blocks journalists from getting the kind of information that keeps government agencies in check, and in this case hindered journalists from reaching the technical information needed to critically analyze the rule.

After fielding questions from reporters, a press liaison told journalists that the call would be ‘on the record,’ with attribution given to an anonymous EPA official. “That’s not what ‘on the record’ means, by any journalistic standard,” reads an open letter from the Society of Environmental Journalists, in protest of the call’s policy. “Many reporters and news organizations, especially those outside the Washington Beltway, hew to the principle that they will only publish or air information provided by a named source. It’s a question of credibility–ours and yours.”

Beyond the call being on background, several of the technical experts weren’t identified, making it impossible for reporters to assess the information effectively or follow up with sources for an on-the-record quote after the fact. For some reporters, struggling to break down the unwieldy proposal or figure out its effects on their state, having the call ‘on background’ rather than ‘on the record’ meant that the material was essentially unusable.

“At the AP, we can’t use anonymous sources for anything more than factual statements,” said Dina Cappiello, who covers the EPA for the Associated Press and questioned the ‘on background’ stance during the call. “It can’t be anything in the realm of opinion. You actually have to say why they’re anonymous and why they’re speaking on the condition of anonymity.”

The EPA, however, writes off the policy as a common practice, allowing journalists to follow up with questions after they’ve been briefed. “[Having calls on background] is a standard practice among all federal agencies, not just the EPA but also the White House,” said Alisha Johnson, an administrator with the EPA. “It’s something that’s pretty routinely done; it’s the opportunity for us to put very technical experts on the phone with reporters, for the press to ask very specific detailed questions.” In a response to SEJ posted by the EPA this week, the agency reiterates its commitment to the press, listing a set of 17 outlets that Administrator Gina McCarthy has provided interviews to over the last week. “As a matter of course, we routinely and regularly make Administrator McCarthy available to the media, as well as engage the public directly through a variety of social media channels, including Twitter, Google+, and Reddit,” reads the letter.

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But access to the public through social media and a Reddit AMA is a different situation than allowing the wide array of journalists covering complicated legislation to access experts openly. To some journalists, the quick jump to ‘on background’ represents not a standard policy but a dangerous and growing pattern in federal agency behavior–preventing journalists from accessing relevant information and limiting the story to to the press release.

“Different agencies handle press access better and worse, and the EPA’s among the worst,” said Beth Parke, president executive director of the SEJ. “People trying to get EPA officials, scientists to be on the record and have unfettered access to these sources get stonewalled or delayed or handled through talking-point emails. They’re standing up and talking more and more about their experiences.”

In a speech to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in May, Kathleen Carroll, the AP’s executive editor, issued a call to arms to journalists to push back against the Obama administration’s closed press policies. Part of why Cappiello spoke up on the call is because of the AP’s renewed commitment to “insisting that a president’s activities are public information,” as Carroll said in her speech. “To do otherwise would let coverage of the White House turn into one long stream of cheerful selfies of a president who doesn’t bother to answer questions, from journalists or the citizens they represent.”

“If this was just on technical details about how this rule is going to work based on this program, I’m not sure why that can’t be on the record,” said Cappiello. “It’s less convenient, time is obviously of the essence, and I also just don’t think we should be negotiating quotes. If this indeed was an ethical call, which it was, and we’re going to be talking about the facts and the architecture of this rule I just didn’t see why it couldn’t be on the record.”

In the meantime the SEJ invited the EPA to solidify their commitment to openness with an open “on the record” meeting at the SEJ’s annual conference. “Your invitation for Administrator McCarthy to join your annual conference in New Orleans is with our scheduling office for consideration,” is the agency’s response.

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Emily Bell and Taylor Owen co-authored this study. Emily Bell is Professor of Professional Practice at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Taylor Owen is Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.