Does new policy hurt transparency?

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The FDA decided to bar reporters from consulting outside experts about embargoed news. Journalists say this runs counter to FDA's pledge to increase transparency. The agency says otherwise. Is this sound policy?

Peter Pitts
Senior partner/director of regulatory & health policy,
Porter Novelli

While this decision infringes on the free and fair dissemination of scientific data and is contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment it is, more dangerously, antipathetic to the public health. FDA regularly complains that the Fourth Estate misrepresents science, using partial evidence and selective facts to bully companies, frighten patients and describe its decisions as alternatively too weak or overly authoritarian. By attempting to deny journalists the ability to consult with independent experts on highly technical issues, FDA is reinforcing just the kind of malignant behavior it wants to ameliorate—driving a generalist media into the arms of “the usual suspects.” A compromise solution would be for the agency to prepare and provide a list of “approved” experts for reporters to consult.  

Charles Ornstein
Senior reporter, ProPublica;
president, Association of Health Care Journalists

The FDA's restriction prevents reporters from fully informing the public about what the FDA is doing with taxpayers' money. Embargoes are a system based on mutual trust. An essential reason reporters agree to them is the time they get to find context and contact others who can evaluate the new information before publication. If the FDA continues to prohibit such reporting, it will be a serious obstacle to good journalism. Reporters who want to be competitive on a story will essentially have to agree to write only what the FDA wants to tell the world, without analysis or outside commentary. Such a policy would be disturbing coming from a public agency, especially one that has pledged to increase transparency.

Mike Huckman
SVP, director of media strategy,

If I were still at CNBC this policy would've pissed me off. I don't get it. When an embargo was lifted on potential stock-moving—or, at least, important news out of the FDA—I needed to be locked and loaded with all of my ducks in a row. In a best-case scenario, my coverage would have included reaction from the companies involved and/or from a key opinion leader or principal investigator.  This restriction unnecessarily ties reporters' hands behind their backs.  I think it's sanctimonious to claim the policy hampers reporters' ability to communicate to Americans what the agency is doing with their tax dollars. My issue with it is rather simple: At a time when reporters are stretched thin and moving at breakneck speed to report in real time, it just makes it that much harder to do their job.

Amy Smith
Account director,
HCB Health

Philosopher John Dewey gave voice to a now ubiquitous view on journalism: In a democratic society, journalists should do more than simply pass on information—they should weigh the consequences of the policies being enacted. This perspective still has great merit today, and especially in the case of the FDA embargoes. When's the last time you read a press release and thought: “I'm sure that's the full story, the entire picture.” Probably rarely. But that's essentially what this situation reinforces: press releases as news. When one entity controls the information, the readers lose the ability to access all sides of the story to draw their own conclusions. This counter to the spirit of transparency the FDA has committed.
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