The NOAA Media Policy: Political pre-approval for public communication by scientists

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The official NOAA Media Policy establishes a procedure that requires pre-clearance of contacts between NOAA scientists and the media. Under this policy, the NOAA Public Affairs office is designated as responsible for coordinating and approving media communications involving NOAA, including advisories, press releases, interviews, and other related media contacts. NOAA’s policy establishes a framework for politicization of decisions about public communication by federal climate scientists.

In June 2004 NOAA issued a new “NOAA Media Policy” over the signature of Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. (ret.), the NOAA Administrator and Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.  The media policy document is posted on the Web site of the NOAA Office of Public, Constitutent, and Intergovernmental Affairs (OPCIA) and the full text is posted below.

In the NOAA organizational structure the Director of Public Affairs reports to the NOAA Deputy Administrator (Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere)  a Senate-confirmed political appointee who is also the Director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. The NOAA Deputy Administrator, in turn, reports to the NOAA Administrator, Adm. Lautenbacher. The Public Affairs Office is subject to being used as an instrument for implementing an Administration political agenda.

Note Section 3 of the NOAA Media Policy: Media and Public Interactions Requiring Prior Notification.  This section can readily be interpreted to apply to media and public interactions involving pretty much anything having to do with discussion of climate science research and its implications.  Prior notification implies prior approval—of content, of who will be allowed to speak with the media, and of whether to allow the media contact or public interaction at all.

Section 4.02 also raises problematic issues.  Would requiring responses to media queries to ֓focus on science and fact, not speculation, allow the reporting of findings but limit scientistsԒ freedom to offer a judgment about the implications of the findings?  Would limiting discussion to “matters for which you are responsible and of which you have direct knowledge” limit scientists’ freedom to comment on research findings by scientists at other institutions?  And how can it possibly be legitimate to say to NOAA personnel: “Whether in person, on camera, or over the phone, when speaking to a reporter you represent and speak for the entire agency.”  If scientists do not purport to represent the official policy of the U.S. Government, or of their agency, how can they be told they cannot offer their viewpoint as individual scientists?

This policy goes beyond a legitimate need for “coordination”. The media and Congressional oversers should ask Admiral Lautenbacher how he can justify this restrictive policy on public communication by scientists in his agency.  Would this restriction on freedom of expression by federal employees stand up under a legal challenge?

NAO 219-6
NOAA MEDIA POLICY
Effective: 6/22/04; Issued: 6/28/04
SECTION 1.  PURPOSE.
.01 This Order establishes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) media policy.  NOAA public affairs programs have been established throughout NOAA to conduct media and public relations activities.  These activities are coordinated through the Office of Public, Constituent, and Intergovernmental Affairs (OPCIA).  Well-planned media relations programs help earn public support of missions, functions, and services performed by NOAA.  A principal goal of public, constituent, and intergovernmental affairs activities is to increase understanding of NOAA and its mission by increasing public exposure to, and understanding of, NOAAs programs.
SECTION 2.  RESPONSIBILITIES.
.01 As NOAA is an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), clearance of releasable information is the ultimate responsibility of the Secretary of Commerce and his/her designated Public Affairs Director.  Information on the DOC program is outlined in Department Administrative Order (DAO) 219-2, Release of News, Clearance of Publications, and Media Coverage.
.02 OPCIA is responsible for coordinating and approving media communications involving NOAA, including advisories, press releases, interviews, and other related media contacts.  OPCIA’s responsibilities include media communications concerning the following:
a.  announcement of the release of official NOAA data, research, positions, and statements;
b.  announcement of activities of NOAA or Department leadership which pertain to NOAA policy, science, research, missions, projects, and partnerships;
c.  announcement of the release of contracts, grants, and grants-in-aid of $500,000 or more, or others of any amount which may have significant public interest or other public value or significance;
d.  activities that may have policy-making implications; and
e.  announcing official scientific and technical papers authored or co-authored by NOAA employees that result or may result in media interest.
.03 The Director, OPCIA, may grant exceptions to the provisions of this Order as circumstances warrant.
.04 NOAA public affairs professionals are responsible for ensuring that reporters get timely and accurate answers to pertinent questions.
.05 Officials in Line and Staff Offices will ensure their organizations coordinate their activities in accordance with this Order.  Media inquiries, or issues and events that may be expected to lead to media inquiries, should be referred to the Line or Staff Offices servicing Public Affairs Officer (PAO).
SECTION 3.  MEDIA AND PUBLIC INTERACTIONS REQUIRING PRIOR NOTIFICATION.
.01 The following shall be referred to the servicing PAO:
a.  proposed news conferences, whether for the specialized press or for the general press, radio, or television;
b.  proposed contacts with major news media and radio and television stations or networks for coverage of news features involving NOAA programs or activities; and
c.  official and non-official scientific and technical papers authored or co-authored by NOAA employees that may result in media interest.
.02 NOAA employees must notify the servicing PAO or OPCIA before responding to news media inquiries whenever the inquiries:
a.  are of national news interest;
b.  concern regulatory actions or issues;
c.  concern controversial issues;
d.  pertain to science or research having known or potential policy implications;
e.  involve the release of scientific or technical papers that may have policy implications or are controversial; or
f.  involve a crisis or a potential crisis situation.
.03 Any proposed participation or inclusion in media presentations (e.g., audio or visual tapes, films, television programs, exhibits, etc.) by individuals resulting from their duties as NOAA employees must be referred by those individuals to and cleared by OPCIA beforehand.
SECTION 4.  GUIDANCE ON MEDIA QUERIES.
.01 Keep OPCIA informed about media interest or potential interest in your work.  The team of NOAA public affairs professionals has built very strong working relationships with many reporters.  The team can assist NOAA employees in communicating aspects of their work or in responding to media calls.
.02 The following is intended to serve as general guidance for individuals who will be in contact with members of the media as a result of their work with NOAA.

a.  Discussions should focus on science and fact, not speculation.
b.  Limit discussions to matters for which you are responsible and of which you have direct knowledge.
c.  Whether in person, on camera, or over the phone, when speaking to a reporter you represent and speak for the entire agency.
d.  When speaking to reporters, you are speaking on the record.  Off-the-record and background interviews almost always result in a story.
e.  You are not bound to talk with reporters.  Should you have any questions, concerns, or doubts, call your servicing PAO.
f.  Following an interview, call your servicing PAO to describe the interview and the expected story.  Do this promptly.  The situation may require the PAO to contact the reporter in order to provide additional information and context.
SECTION 5.  MEDIA COVERAGE.
.01 DOC and NOAA policies are consistent with the spirit of openness in the Federal Government.  Media representatives must be granted free access to open meetings of advisory committees and other meetings convened by NOAA.  By definition, these include:
a.  all public meetings, workshops, symposia, conferences, seminars, and the like, which are chaired, co-chaired, hosted, or organized by authorized representatives of NOAA; and
b.  all open meetings and open portions of meetings of advisory committees for which NOAA is responsible.
.02 News media representatives attending and reporting public meetings are permitted to use tape recorders, cameras, and electronic equipment for broadcast purposes.  Positioning and use of such equipment, however, should not interfere with the orderly process and conduct of such meetings. To prevent the disruption of meetings, film crews, technicians, and other assigned media representatives should discuss with OPCIA representatives the position of all equipment (lights, microphones, cameras, etc.) in advance and defer removal until the conclusion of the meeting or during an intermission period that provides sufficient time for withdrawal of equipment.
.03 A PAO attached to the Line Office or regional office sponsoring or co-sponsoring a meeting may be present, or consulted, to undertake all responsibilities of a news media nature, including but not restricted to physical arrangements herein described.

.04 It shall be the responsibility of the servicing PAO (or designee) to cooperate fully with and accede to all reasonable requests from news media representatives.  In instances where conflicts or misunderstandings may arise from the expressed views, wishes, or demands on the part of news media representatives, such matters should be referred at once to the Director, OPCIA, for resolution.
.05 The Director, OPCIA, shall exercise full authority and assume responsibility for all decisions involving the news media and related activity.
SECTION 6.  EFFECT ON OTHER ISSUANCES.
None.
                /S/               
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere
Office of Primary Interest:
  NOAA Office of Public, Constituent and Intergovernmental Affairs

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