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.
Happy Monday from OPUBCO HQ, where I’m glad my pick for Best Picture, “The Hurt Locker,” had such a great showing last night at the Academy Awards.
Here’s a few of our stories you might have missed over the weekend:
–Watchdog reporter Ann Kelley had an update on an investigation into a decorated state trooper who has been accused of improperly handling surplus helicopter parts. The trooper, Joe Howard, continues to draw his annual salary of $57,600 on paid leave as the investigation now drags into its 15th month.
–A plan to protest a pending Open Records request by The Oklahoman may have backfired for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, whose members could face an ethics investigation for using state equipment to e-mail and phone the newspaper and the state agency that received the request at their association’s urging. (More background on the newspaper’s request is here.)
The workers were upset because the newspaper requested birth dates, salaries and other basic employment information for all state employees. The request remains unfulfilled. The birth dates of public employees have been deemed public information under a recent opinion by [Attorney General Drew] Edmondson.
Edmondson released the birth dates for his employees to the newspaper last month. Oklahoma City Public Schools this week released birth dates for more than 5,000 district employees in response to an open records request.
–While we’re talking about background checks, Watchdog reporter Sonya Colberg dug into just how much information can be gleaned from the state’s standard background check. Not included in the standard background checks by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation are criminal records from other states, protective orders or civil filings. For a good explanation of what is and isn’t covered, check out the box that ran with the story.
–The debate over what to do with health care reform continues to rage in Washington, but one company based in Tennessee appears to be playing on the fears of customers. Watchdog reporter Vallery Brown has the story in today’s paper about an alleged health insurance scam that has left a trail of unpaid claims across the country, including Oklahoma. (More background on that story here.)
–Courts reporter Nolan Clay had an interesting story on the limits of technology and law enforcement. It turns out a convicted felon who had already served time in federal and state prison for weapons and drug convictions was allowed to wear a GPS ankle bracelet:
Early last year, convicted drug dealer Ricky Fitzgerald Reese was sent to state prison to serve a five-year sentence for selling crack cocaine near an Oklahoma City high school.
He stayed 10 months.
In late November, prison officials put an ankle monitor on him and let him loose. By February, prosecutors allege, he was selling drugs again — even as corrections officials were supposedly monitoring him by global positioning satellites.
I’m researching for an upcoming story, and thought I wouldn’t wait to share this info.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services keeps an online list of daycares and their inspection records. You can search by facility name, area or star rating and see how well the daycare is doing. The records note any complaints, annual inspection deficiencies and contact information for the director.