Making a subset of an agency’s scientists who “know how to stay in their scientific lane” available to the press as part of a “trust-building exercise”? I want no part of it. I’ll remain one of the untrustworthy reporters, thank you very much.
I appreciate Rick’s perspective on both sides — but the dichotomy between agencies taken over by “ideological extremists” that need to be watched via FOIA versus the good guys is a false one. Any agency, no matter how well-meaning, has its skeletons and scandals that it will fight tooth and nail to prevent coming to light. And that’s a lane worth driving in, whether the agency gives its employees permission to go there or not.
As an even older hand at this caper, I urge all science communicators to read this excellent account of lessons learned when working “on the dark side”.
One particular point appealed to me. “While as a reporter I had seen PIOs as tools for me to further my craft, I now saw reporters as tools to serve my needs.”
It underlines the true role of the reporter. As the late great Steve Connor, among others, insisted it was not his job to “sell science”. That was the job of the PIO. He was there to hold science, and scientists, to account.
Then there’s the PIOs that simply don’t respond to inquiries. Put together “All inquiries must come through me” with zero response, not even a “No Comment” ; or respond with “I’ll see what I can find out” leading to months of silence, and it’s not easy for me as a journalist to retain respect for the PIO. I’ve had the press rep listen in during a phone interview, so set limits on what questions her expert could answer; I had no problem with this, and it resulted in some fine columns. However, inquiries that disappear into the void are a different matter.
I appreciate Rick writing about this, he has had an interesting ride. As someone who deals with these agencies regularly, I think “a pilot project where a PIO at some science-based agency picks a subset of that agency’s scientists who are good communicators and know how to stay in their scientific lane and makes them directly available to reporters as needed, as a trust-building exercise” is a terrific idea. It would essentially reset the situation to what it was a few decades ago, before the agencies were so politicized by the political staffers now running most comms shop, and sometimes minding the appointees, at many federal agencies. This really helped educate me when I was a new reporter, and would doubtless help now in most or all cases.
But to be clear — reporters are not megaphones to get out a”message” for agencies, but critical observers meant to poke holes in propaganda (even earnestly well-intentioned propaganda) by challenging it with outside experts, data, events, colorful social media of cats, etc. It is meant to be a conflict, especially in our sad, sick era of message control. About this, there shouldn’t be any illusions.
As someone who has watched you go back and forth across these lines from a relatively close distance I can only say how hilariously honest and painfully true thus is. Thanks for putting it out there so artfully, pal.
Great post, Rick. Your thoughts get to the heart of so much of the recent discussion among science writers who are members of NASW. There are PIOs everywhere, including in gov’t agencies, who already do as you suggest, putting forth scientists who are good, honest communicators about science. And there are reporters who are worth every ounce of a PIO’s trust. While there are a lot of opportunities (and some necessity) to be at odds, there is a great deal of common ground centered around truth.
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