Royal runaround

Sometimes, journalists have less access to information and experts than does the general public.

That’s right. Less access.

I bring you my Friday frustrations with the California Department of Public Health, which this week utterly failed me and anyone who reads my stories.

The subject of the day was radon, an invisible gas that is the No. 2 cause of lung cancer deaths. Everyone knows smoking is No. 1. Nobody knows what the heck radon is. I wanted to change that.

I quickly learned that one of the leading experts in the state could be found up in Sacramento, at DPH. George Faggella maintains records of radon test results in homes across the state, and could help explain the risks and the best ways to prevent radon from becoming a problem where you live.

Faggella’s phone number is listed on the Department of Public Health’s Web site for questions from the general public. I’m a member of the public, so I gave him a call on Wednesday morning. He sounded more than willing to talk, although he politely said that the department’s policy required me, as a journalist, to go through the public affairs office first.

I’d kind of expected that. Lots of agencies have policies to keep track of — or in some cases control — media inquiries. It’s usually no big deal; just one hoop to jump through.

This time it turned into a three-ring circus.

I called Ron Owens, a spokesman in DPH’s public affairs office. I asked for permission to interview Faggella. Owens, who sounds like a nice guy — and heck, he didn’t write the policy — said he’d get to work on it. He asked me to send a general list of questions so that Faggella could prepare. I don’t mind doing that, either, with the understanding that the list is not all-encompassing.

I heard nothing the rest of the day Wednesday. Knowing that Friday was a furlough day, I called Owens on Thursday morning to follow up. Turns out the email I sent had fallen through the cracks. That’s OK, I told him. Faggella had already told me directly that he’d be in the office on Thursday and there was still plenty of time to get this done.

Owens went back to work and responded with a 10:18 a.m. email saying Faggella was available for a phone interview in the afternoon, and what was my schedule like? I told him anytime would work.

Hours passed.

At 2:18 p.m. I emailed Owens again and suggested I should just call Faggella directly. Faggella had already said he was available and willing. There was no need for Owens to set this up.

At 2:20 p.m. he wrote back and said Faggella was preparing written responses to be completed sometime that afternoon.

YAGHHHHH! The whole thing had fallen apart. Here’s why written responses usually don’t work. First, people don’t write the way they speak. Especially scientists. It’s often hard for lay-persons, members of the PUBLIC like myself, to understand. Which brings me to the second, more serious, problem, which is that written responses to questions do not allow for any back and forth. They don’t allow me to ask follow-up questions so that I can understand the issue and provide the best possible information to readers. Thirdly, written responses can be filtered or edited by an intermediary, in this case, Owens.

I wrote back and said I needed a telephone interview. Owens didn’t respond.

I called him about 4 p.m. He said he hadn’t gotten the OK for a telephone interview from Faggella’s boss, who was unavailable. Apparently that’s the three-ring circus media policy at DPH: Reporter goes to PR guy. PR guy goes to source. Source directs PR guy to source’s boss. PR guy waits for source’s boss to respond. PR guy allows journalist to contact source directly, just like anyone else on this planet can do without any of the aforementioned steps.

The written responses came at 5:04 p.m. “Hot of the press!” Owens wrote. The answers were helpful but not nearly as effective as a phone interview.

DPH lists eight core values on its Web site. One says: “We foster an atmosphere of trust by modeling consistent and professional behaviors and valuing them in others. We strive for transparency in our actions and communications.”

What I don’t see in DPH’s core values is a commitment to public education. And indeed, if such a commitment exists it was lacking this week.

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