This piece is adapted from plenary remarks delivered October 16, 2018, at the National Association of Science Writers’ Information Access Summit.
In the spring of 2009, I was given an amazing opportunity to become director of communications in the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. I had no experience as a public information officer. But I had been a reporter for 20-plus years, and I thought to myself, how hard can this be?
What’s more, I wasn’t going to be one of those in-your-face PR people, who stays on the phone line during a press call or sits off to the side during an in-person interview, pretending not to care or listen, when really they’re ready to pounce if the person being interviewed says one thing beyond the agreed-upon talking points.
In other words, I was going to be a champion for openness. But it didn’t take me long to learn that in a political world, there is often an inherent conflict between full openness and policy success. That revelation was professionally and ethically wrenching, forcing some soul searching about means and ends. It also left me feeling that if we really want a world where evidence has a full seat at the policy-making table, then every journalist should “do time” as a public information officer, and see the world for a stint through that uniquely strategic lens.
As a journalist, I saw government public information officers, or PIOs, primarily as agents to serve us reporters. In fact, they owed it to us, because we were representing the interests of the American people, whose tax dollars were paying for all this research. So when we asked to speak to a scientist, or to get hold of a draft report, or to see some records from some research project, it was not a matter of if we could have it, but rather “How fast can you get that for me?”
Naively, I maintained that journalist-friendly approach as a government PIO — for about an hour, until a reporter wrote a story that stretched a comment made by my boss, the president’s science advisor, to make it seem as though there was a big White House initiative to start geoengineering the climate.
That caused problems, and it was around then that I had an epiphany: Actually, it’s the job of us PIOs — not the media — to serve the American people. In fact, it’s officially our job. And yes, we’ll disseminate the results of taxpayer-funded research and give updates on programs funded by and for the American public. But it’s not always going to be on the media’s schedule or in a way the media want it, because we have a plan for serving the American people and this administration was elected to implement that plan. So, no, I just might not be able to help you today on deadline. And who the hell do these freaking reporters think they are?
Clearly, I had evolved. 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. I had a message, and they were messengers, and what didn’t they get about that?
Imagine my frustration. I would put out a release about some new, very important, very smart and socially beneficial program or policy and these reporters would treat it, well, the same way I used to treat self-serving releases put out by various institutions. Which is to say, they’d ignore it. And not only would they not report on these very important, even historic, administration and agency accomplishments. They would call wanting to report on other things … things I didn’t want to talk about!
There were two kinds of trouble here.
First there were the forces of journalistic evil, which were essentially open about the fact that their goal in life was to prevent me and my colleagues from fulfilling our righteous, duly elected agenda. And they would take whatever thread of something they could grab, put the worst spin on it, and then pull it and keep on pulling it for as long as they could get some juice out of it.
That was the case with our behavioral economics initiative. Social science research had shown that sometimes a small “nudge” is the best way to encourage positive societal change. So, for example, instead of sending threatening messages saying that people who cheat on their taxes will be fined and imprisoned, you send out friendly letters just reminding people that — you know what? — most people in your community pay their taxes in full and on time. Nudge nudge. Or when research shows that a main reason people don’t insulate their attics is because they can’t deal with all the clutter they’ve accumulated up there, you offer attic cleaning services as you try to get people to install energy-saving insulation. Nudge nudge.
But when media outlets caught wind that the administration was toying with using these techniques to encourage people to make healthful or energy-saving or money-saving decisions for themselves, they pounced.
So that program had to get toned down for a while, and a potential force for good was delayed. Lesson learned: Sometimes you have to choose between the virtue of openness and the virtue of keeping some efforts a little under the radar in order to make the world a better place — a place where people pay their taxes and more attics are insulated.
Then there were the well-meaning reporters who just wanted to know the latest on some aspect of policymaking or governance that was still in process. What they didn’t seem to appreciate is that to get anything done in government you need to get a lot of people to agree. There’s an art to making that happen, including countless drafts of key documents on the way to achieving consensus. Early drafts, if released, would leave entirely the wrong impression of what is actually being sought — or maybe the right impression but too soon, if there are people who haven’t bought in yet and who need to be stroked or cajoled. If the drafts are published as news, those people are going to be offended and the policy could be set back, if not killed entirely.
And this isn’t a game. We’re talking about policies that have the potential to affect and, if done right, help thousands of Americans. Is it really that hard to understand? I mean, how do you feel when your editor comes around an hour before deadline to look over your shoulder and judge your copy? Worse, how would you like your editor to take that copy — which you know looks like crap but that you also know is going to be a gem with just another hour’s work — and have that editor publish it online for now just to satisfy readers who are impatient to know the latest news?
So please, Mr. or Ms. Reporter, I found myself thinking, if you would just put aside your petty, self-important infatuation with being first and behave more like the public servant you claim to be — which, let me remind you, is actually my noble profession as a PIO — well, let’s face it, the world would be a better place.
As you can see, my righteous transformation was complete. Or so I thought. Because then, 2016 happened, and suddenly, there was Hope. No, not the Obama kind. I mean Hope Hicks. And Sean. And Sarah. And all at once, it seemed, government-associated PIOs were telling us that facts are literally not facts. And the facts that are facts are alternative facts. And these were my peeps. With the same job titles as I had!
But hooray, here comes the cavalry — heroic reporters asking hard questions! Demanding to see documents! Clamoring to know what the new administration is planning to do — yes, before those plans are complete! But this is different, right? What was I thinking before? How could I not have seen that my transformation to a virtuous government PIO had actually been a grotesque descent to a lower life form, from righteous reportorial seeker of truth to a dissembling flack. What Kool-Aid had I swallowed?
And so, for a time, I struggled. I reflected. Because yes, though I had walked through the valley of the message-control mavens, surely I had done nothing shameful, had I? All this back and forth about who is the more noble, the reporter or the PIO — was I just making it all up as I went along, depending on who was signing my paychecks, who I liked, or how I felt about the particular issue at hand?
And if it isn’t about whether you are a reporter or a PIO, then what is it all about? Are there some core principles to which science writers and PIOs can claim mutual allegiance? Some standards of behavior, some reasonable expectation of respect and responsiveness, that we owe one another, no matter what, for the sake of the public — that vaunted public that we both claim to serve?
The challenge is in some ways tougher than ever today. Current government leaders, together with some business interests, have methodically politicized and stoked distrust in science, scientists, and, by association, science writers.
It’s easy to see why. Science, scientists, and science writers can uncomfortably document the impacts of continued burning of fossil fuels. They can publicize what happens when you take shortcuts with your lead-pipe water lines. They can raise questions about the true efficacy or safety of highly profitable drugs, or the ecological or economic impacts of engineered seeds, or the wisdom of unfettered sales of guns.
But to be fair, the remarkably rapid recent devolution of the communications landscape is also to blame. With social media’s enormous reach, and the concomitant decline in standards of honesty and civility on the web, institutions — including even well-meaning government agencies (and yes there are still some) — have never been so vulnerable. A single erroneous bit of coverage, intentional or not, can go viral, spin out of control, and do enormous damage.
Painful and derailing as those news stories about the Obama nudge efforts were, they were nothing compared to the virulence of today’s mediascape. Can you blame anyone for wanting to stay out of it?
So what’s the solution?
In some cases, ideological extremists have just taken total control over an agency’s communications, and science writers have no alternative but to fight with whatever tools are available: FOIA requests by the pound, constant probing for leaks, reliance on anonymous sources when necessary.
But for other departments and agencies across government, I suspect there’s room for experimentation. How about 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? It would be a baby step, but a possible start. Surely there are other creative possibilities that science writers and PIOs could come up with, if we can just keep this conversation going.
One thing I can say for certain, having been on both sides: As infuriatingly shortsighted, restrictive, and risk averse as some government PIOs are, some of their concerns about journalistic access are actually legitimate and are not going to go away. Without some sensitivity to those concerns, the gates that science reporters are rightly swarming will never swing open.
Rick Weiss is director of SciLine, a philanthropically funded service for reporters covering science, health, and the environment, hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.