NEW ORLEANS -- U.S. EPA's policy staffers, not its scientific experts, are the ones who should be answering reporters' policy questions, a longtime EPA spokesman told environmental journalists gathered here this week.
"Clearly, our goal is to have scientific experts talk about their work. ... I think that we all think that is important," David Gray, director of public affairs in EPA's Dallas-based Region 6 office, said yesterday at the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference.
But policy issues are another story, said Gray, a longtime career staffer who has been working in EPA public affairs since 1995.
"When it gets into where the agency is going to have a policy perspective ... that's clearly not what we do in the regions. That audience of folks and decisionmakers sit in the Beltway for us -- in Washington, D.C."
That can get complicated when scientific and policy issues are entwined, he said. "The part that we struggle with ... the most is when those are closely woven together," Gray said. "We try to answer and put our scientific experts on the topic at large up to the point of implementation and then deflect policy questions to Washington where it's more appropriate for them to put the policy decisionmaker on."
EPA has been under fire from the environmental reporters' group and other press organizations recently, as critics argue the agency has blocked access to employees and even independent science advisers. Last month, a coalition of journalism and watchdog groups complained that EPA requires science advisers who receive requests from the press and the public to refrain from responding directly and route questions through the press office (Greenwire, Aug. 12).
And in July, nearly 40 journalism and watchdog groups -- including SEJ -- sent a letter to the White House warning that "the stifling of free expression" was occurring at agencies across the government, including EPA (Greenwire, July 9). EPA chief Gina McCarthy declined an invitation to speak at this year's SEJ conference, a move SEJ Executive Director Beth Parke called a "missed opportunity" to engage with reporters covering environmental issues (Greenwire, Aug. 8).
Tom Reynolds, the political appointee charged with overseeing EPA's press operations, has defended the agency's tactics.
"Our job in the external affairs office is to help coordinate the agency's engagement with the press," he told Greenwire during a recent interview. "Scientists are here to do science; the engineers are here to do engineering; lawyers are here to do lawyering. If anything, we work to facilitate that. Some people aren't comfortable talking to reporters, so when they get a call on their desk line, they're not comfortable, they don't want to be talking to the press, so our role is to help get the media the information they need."
At the same time, he said, "We do think it's important that media get answers to complicated information, technical details, and I know that this has been a challenge for the agency for a long time, but we've really worked to make sure we're doing a better job getting technical experts on the phone to get them the information they need."
Reynolds said the agency suggests that employees refer reporters' questions to the press shop but there would be no negative repercussions against employees who speak to the media without first referring them to the public affairs office.
"I think we would have a conversation that it's appropriate for scientists to talk about the science and research they're involved in, but that policy conversations are best left to other officials," he said.
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