On Tuesday, I participated in a news conference held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding new rule proposals for coal ash.
It was for a follow-up to an article on residents in the eastern Oklahoma town of Bokoshe fighting to close down a coal ash disposal site near their town of about 460 people.
The topic and the EPA’s action is somewhat complicated, but what surprised me about the whole Washington news conference — reporters could call in and listen and ask questions at the end — was that although I was hearing EPA experts speak, I was told in a news release issued just shortly before the conference to quote them only as “senior EPA officials” and not by name. Journalists were to quote only EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson by name.
This was a first for me. I’m not an environmental reporter by trade and haven’t participated in too many telephone news conferences with federal agencies. But, I was offended and I thought our readers probably would be too.
I was also torn as to if I should participate. As journalists, we’re duty bound to provide information to our readers on topics of interest, but at the same time we shouldn’t encourage government officials to operate behind a veil of secrecy. Plus, I don’t think our readers want a whole bunch of stories quoting nameless bureaucratic sources. It’s hard to trust that information. In the end, I phoned in to listen to the conference but decided not to use information from anybody that I could only say was a “senior EPA official.”
Turns out that this wasn’t the first time the EPA had done something like this. On Wednesday, I read a blog by Robert McClure on InvestigateWest about how the EPA had done this before. McClure makes some excellent points.
I won’t say never again, absolute statements like that can come back to bite you and it could be just a big enough story that it has to happen, but I will discourage my editors and fellow reporters from participating in a news conference under such conditions.
Colleagues John Estus and Bryan Dean wrote an article in March on the dangers of allowing government to hide behind such carefully-controlled and filtered messages. It’s a growing concern how many agencies are trying to control the story.
As journalists we want the information as unfiltered as we can get it, and we believe our readers want and deserve the same.