Writing about science a bureaucratic nightmare due to Harper media relations policies, journalist says

Margaret Munro, a senior writer for Postmedia news, has been a passionate science writer for over 25 years. From her office in Vancouver, she has written stories about Canada's innovative and world-renowned scientific research.

She has been to the Arctic to report on global warming, to Cape Canaveral for space launches and into laboratories where researchers dream of growing human body parts and creating paint-on solar cells. An award-winning journalist, Munro is intrigued with the way science, society and politics intersect.

But since Environment Canada quietly introduced a new media relations policy four years ago, writing about science has become a bureaucratic nightmare.

The policy has drastically changed how journalists communicate with federal government scientists, Munro told the Vancouver Observer in a recent interview.

 “All of a sudden, when you phoned an Environment Canada scientist they’d either not call you back, or they’d say: ‘I can’t talk to you now, you have to go through Ottawa. We’ve had a change of policy,’” Munro said.

Called the New Media Protocol, Environment Canada stipulates that because it is "one department," it will have "one website”  and “one voice,” according to access-to-information documents Munro attained from the department.  

“Invariably, you’d end up in the hands of media handlers in Ottawa who would phone you back, or send you an email. They’d say: ‘Ok, what’s the story? Submit your questions.’ They’d want your questions in writing,” Munro said. “They’d get back to you and often give you approved lines, or scripted lines, that you could use.”

What the policy means for journalists

The protocol for contacting government scientists about research was once  very open. Journalists could call a scientist and within hours interview them about recently peer-reviewed research. And scientists felt free to discuss and voice opinion on controversial subjects such as climate change.   

But now media relations at government headquarters in Ottawa coordinate the media's calls to the department. Like something out of a dystopian George Orwell novel, scientists must respond with scripted and approved "media lines."

Calls to Environment Canada, for example, are received by staff who inform the direct supervisor, who contact media relations. Media relations then work with individual staff to decide how to respond to the call and then respond to the journalist with the approved lines.

“So basically, now we’ve got the PR people telling the scientists, working with the scientists,” Munro said. “They seemed to have jumped ahead of the scientists in who’s making the decisions.”

Environment Canada explains "one department, one voice"

In an inquiry to Environment Canada about the reasons for the new PR policy, the department addressed the topic in a similar fashion to how it would when a reporter calls for an interview with a scientist.

The department staff member asked for the questions to be written out. She then said the response would likely be returned in a day or two. A person-to-person interview was not granted.

Two days later, a response to the inquiry returned in an email. But the questions answered were not those asked by the journalist. Instead, the email listed four different questions about the topic and included five short paragraphs as answers.

The answers focused on explaining the policy and how it works, not why the extra control is now necessary, which was the journalist's intent.

"The Communications Policy of the Government of Canada holds that we provide the public with timely, accurate, clear, objective, and complete information about the government's policies, programs and services. As members of Canada's public service, and employees of the Government of Canada, Environment Canada scientists are subject to this policy," the response said.

Frustrating journalists

But journalists and bureaucrats obviously have different ideas of what is "timely," Munro said.

"The Canadian government's idea of a 'timely' response seems to be very different from the media's and many other people's idea of timeliness," Munro said later in an email.

"While university and U.S. researchers are usually quick to respond to media calls, phoning and emailing back within minutes, or hours to do interviews.

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