Stacey Singer, a health reporter for the Palm Beach Post in Florida, was perusing a medical journal in 2012 when she came across something startling: a federal epidemiologist’s report about a tuberculosis outbreak in the Jacksonville area. Singer promptly began pursuing the story.
But when she started seeking official comment about the little-reported outbreak, the doors began closing. County health officials referred her to the state health department. State officials referred her to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even though the CDC’s own expert had written the investigative report, the agency’s press office declined to let Singer speak with him. A spokesman told her it was a local matter and sent her back to the state office in Tallahassee.
Through public records requests, Singer eventually was able to piece together the story of a contagion that had caused 13 deaths and 99 illnesses — the worst the CDC had found in 20 years.
“It’s really expensive to fight this hard” for public information, said Singer, now an editorial writer at the newspaper. She suspects that officials were slow to respond because news of the TB outbreak might have harmed Florida’s tourism industry. “They know that to delay is to deny. . . . They know we have to move on to other stories.”
The stories aren’t always as consequential or as dramatic as a TB outbreak, but Singer’s experience is shared by virtually every journalist on the government beat, from the White House on down. They can recite tales with similar outlines: An agency spokesman — frequently a political appointee — rejects the reporter’s request for interviews, offers partial or nonresponsive replies, or delays responding at all until after the journalist’s deadline has passed.