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Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

Summary of News Media Listening Session

National Dialogue On Access to Environmental Information
National Press Club
Washington, DC
April 23, 2008

Quick Summary:  Media Representatives

The media representatives want EPA to provide environmental information in a clear, concise format. They want to have facts (not necessarily interpretations); metadata; and basic information about EPA’s roles, legislation, regulations, and programs. They would like to know the context and historical perspective for this information.

The media need immediate access to  environmental information – especially through direct contact with EPA staff. If they don’t get a quick response, it may be too late to write their story.

The media representatives focused heavily on the politicization of obtaining information from EPA. They are concerned that the Press Office is not responsive to their environmental questions and does not refer them to appropriate EPA experts.

Increasingly, reporters are doing their own data analysis, and seek downloadable spreadsheets.

Librarians, libraries, and reading rooms are all critical resources for these media representatives. They want a place to browse through recent EPA and other environmental  publications, and place high value on the assistance they receive from librarians.

These media representatives go to www.epa.gov for general environmental information. However, they do not use the search engine since it provides too many hits that are not organized in a logical or easy-to-use way.

While some media representatives use RSS feeds and blogs, they have concerns about the accuracy and timeliness of other new Web technologies, such as Wikis.

A key component of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information is a series of facilitated listening sessions to elicit input on the types of environmental information that EPA’s stakeholders use, how they use it, and their preferred formats, channels, and venues for obtaining this information. This report summarizes inputs from a National Dialogue Listening Session with media (including print, online, radio, and television) representatives from the Washington, D.C. area. The Appendix at the end of this document provides information about the participants, including their job titles, affiliations, job descriptions, and how they use environmental information in their work.

Types of Environmental and Public Health Information that Participants Use Media representatives shared experiences and perspectives regarding the topics they report on most frequently, including characteristics that tend to make data and information more or less useful to their work.

The media representatives indicated that they cover a wide variety of environmental issues, with one participant saying she works on stories ranging from global issues to actions that individuals have taken to improve the environment. However, they agreed that air pollution, water pollution, pesticides, and climate change (including “spin-off” issues related to climate change) are all topics that they have covered frequently. Compared to other federal agencies, they feel that EPA does a good job of making information available information on line. One participant commented that the Office of Air Quality, Planning & Standards (OAQPS) is the best in this regard, the Office of Transportation & Air Quality (OTAQ) is not quite as good, and that EPA’s web-based information on climate change is still in the beginning stages and not particularly useful.

In addition to specific environmental information topics, the media representatives are interested in obtaining a better understanding of EPA’s roles (e.g., regulation enforcement, data collection) and being informed of EPA’s actions (e.g., one media representative stated that the National Dialogue on Access for Environmental Information and the stakeholder listening sessions are examples of the kind of topics of interest to reporters).

When asked about important environmental information characteristics, the media representative mentioned several key attributes. In terms of the scale of information that the media seek, the representatives need information at all levels – from local and regional data to international information. They would like to be able to access documentation and metadata in order to know what type of information EPA collects, how current it is, and its source, but are concerned that it is difficult to find metadata on www.epa.gov.

The media representatives also noted that they need basic information presented in a clear, concise way. Environmental laws and programs are not easy to understand (e.g., the Clean Air Act) and they would benefit from better descriptions of these EPA laws and programs. Participants suggested that EPA more frequently utilize a “drill down” approach on its web site, beginning with non-technical summary information, and ending with detailed, full text materials, including data and metadata as appropriate. It would be helpful if EPA provided background information on the environmental programs and issues that are the “news of the day.”

“Good national reporters need quick, good, factual information.”

They also indicated their need for the history and context of environmental data – how have air pollution levels changed over time? what levels are safe? what are the EPA standards? what do the data mean? what makes an issue important? They understand that other organizations, such as the Sierra Club and American Enterprise Institute, will interpret environmental information in ways that are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. The media representatives look to EPA for the environmental “facts” and unbiased information. For example, if they are reporting on air pollution, they might want to know about current and historical air pollution levels and the fuel efficiency of different types of cars, but would not ask EPA if SUVs are “good” or “bad.”
Not surprisingly, the media representatives said that they work under short deadlines. They also indicated that while they use the EPA Web site to get general information, they rely on connections with people, via email, phone contact, or in person, to get the specific information that they need in a timely manner. They raised concerns about problems in obtaining information directly from EPA personnel, including:

“Pretty immediate access to people is very important. If I call someone in the morning and they don’t call back until the afternoon, that’s a problem. It is useless if you don’t hear from them until the next day. Several years ago you could walk around EPA and chat with people in their offices.”

Uses of Environmental and Public Heath Information

As illustrated by the media’s need for factual information about the history, context, and issues related to environmental information, the media report on environmental issues that are of interest to their readers and/or reflect the issues of the day. One journalist stated that people like regional and local stories. Another said that her organization looks for positive ideas for its stories, and that approaching EPA to obtain information for these stories is getting more and more difficult.

Formats for Environmental and Public Health Information

When asked if they preferred to receive environmental information in any particular formats, the media representatives mentioned hard copy products, electronic spreadsheets, the docket system, and software information products.

Several of the media representatives lamented the fact that the EPA phone book is no longer published. It provided phone numbers for all EPA staff within an organizational context so that users could determine where EPA staff worked (i.e., EPA office, division, branch) and their job title. While they liked the paper version of the phone book, the media representatives said an electronic version would also be helpful. The paper version of the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Public Data Release (PDR) was also a favorite document among the media representatives.

One media representative noted that environmental reporting is increasingly database driven, and that downloadable spreadsheets that journalists can manipulate are very useful (e.g., TRI Explorer) – the journalists say that by analyzing these data they sometimes discover information that the Agency is not aware of (or had not publicized). Other media representatives frequently use the docket system and stated it would be more useful to them if comments (including the names of the submitters) could be put into the system more quickly. They noted that the Federal Courts make filings instantly available to the public, and offer the public an email alert system to notify them when an item has been filed.

In terms of software, one media representative mentioned Risk Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) as a useful information product that could be even more helpful if it could be made more accessible and usable for non-technical users.

Channels and Venues for Delivery of Environmental and Public Health Information

The media representatives need to access environmental information via channels that provide them with accurate, authoritative, concise, easy-to-understand information in a very timely manner. As described above, while they use Web sites to obtain general information, they tend to prefer approaches involving personal contact.

They noted that they do not often use the www.epa.gov search engine because it doesn’t provide relevant information in a logical order. Adding the capability to sort results by relevance and/or date would be extremely helpful. One of the media representatives finds that the EPA Browse Topics resource, which provides a hierarchical subject index, can be a helpful way to find information on the EPA Web site.

“There is nothing in the world like a good librarian.”

The media representatives would like to obtain information from librarians, who are trained to help people find the specific data they need. They also value the availability of a physical space within EPA (e.g., a library, reading room, or press room), where they can browse through written EPA materials, journals, and other recently published resources. They do not have much experience with the EPA Ask a Librarian feature, and find that the EPA hotlines provide rote information that may be helpful to the public but is not suitable for their needs (e.g., media representatives indicate that hotlines are frequently serviced by non-EPA contractors who cannot express EPA’s official position on issues and, instead, refer them to the EPA Press Office).

“Wikis and collaboration work in agencies and labs, where people share knowledge. This is how real science gets done and it would be great if these could be shared with the media.

While the journalists in this session are interested in new information technologies [e.g., Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds and blogs], some of them are skeptical of certain cutting-edge technologies. One of the journalists gets much of her information through RSS feeds and blogs (e.g., Marcus Peacock’s Flow of the River), while another reporter finds that he receives so many feeds and emails that it is difficult to keep track of them. The media representatives expressed concern about Wikis – they might be useful in a controlled community (e.g., http://www.realclimate.org/) or in a read-only version, but they can be difficult to keep up-to-date and to ensure accuracy. The media representatives say their editors don’t trust the accuracy of Wikis; as with all their work, reporters need to double-check their sources and sort through a lot of resources to determine what is correct.

Appendix
Participant Summary
Group IV: the Media

The information in the following table, compiled from participant sign-in sheets, summarizes key data about the participants. As shown, the eight media participants work at print and online publications as well as for radio and television. The include reporters, editors, publishers, anchors, and producers.

Summary of Media Representatives

Publication Name

Job Title

Job Description

Print and Online Publications

Inside EPA

Publisher

Focuses on newsletters and online news, especially domestic pollution control policy

Inside EPA

Associate Editor

Works on print and online environmental policy at the federal level

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Staff Writer

Newspaper reporter

Online Publications

Society of Environmental Journalists (WatchDog, SEJ Tipsheet, Environmental Journalism Today)

Editor

Reports on the coverage of environmental issues, including information access.

BNA Daily Environment Report

Reporter

Contributes to daily newsletter and Web site.

Environment and Energy Publishing (Greenwire, E&E Daily)

Reporter (EPA and water issues)

Contributes to online publications covering national and international environment and energy news.

Radio

Federal News Radio AM 1050

Anchor/Columnist

Hosts daily radio show about activities and developments within and about federal agencies

Television

Voice of America TV

Producer

Produces “backgrounders,” general information, news, and features for TV with special emphasis on environmental issues

Types of Environmental Information

The media participants provided the following information about the types of environmental information they use:

 Uses of Environmental Information

The media representatives indicated that they use environmental information in the following ways:


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