On subjects from birds to pollution, state scientists are barred from speaking to the Globe
I was working on a story about birds.
Watergate, this was not.
So I wrote to the state ornithologist, Andrew Vitz, who works for the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, asking if he’d be willing to chat.
“I would be happy to talk with you,” he responded in an email.
I just needed permission from a state public relations person, he wrote.
This was not unusual, particularly since Governor Charlie Baker came into office. But I wasn’t optimistic.
For years now, as the environment reporter at the Globe, I have repeatedly requested to speak to a range of state scientists and other officials, hoping they might shed light on the often-complex subjects I write about and answer questions about the state’s positions.
The response I nearly always receive from the administration — as do many of my colleagues — is a self-serving statement with background bullet points. Rarely do the answers address my questions.
Still, I wrote to Katie Gronendyke, a press secretary at the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, who has long had the unfortunate job of having to respond to my requests.
I explained what I was reporting and wrote, “I would love to speak to Andrew for the story. Would that be OK?”
I even sent her questions I hoped to ask.
I called her as well, without luck.
Five hours later, I received a response, one that — as usual — ignored my request to interview the ornithologist.
She sent me four bullet points on background, one of which answered a question I had asked. The last bullet point referred me to a federal agency for further information.
“Can I speak directly to Andrew?” I wrote back. “It would be useful to have his voice in the story.”
I also repeated the questions that I hoped he might answer.
She responded, again, without answering my question. “I will refer you to the background information I provided earlier,” she wrote.
I have had the same experience reporting stories about more sensitive subjects, including mercury pollution, nuclear power, carbon emissions, etc. I ask questions and seek comment from our public officials, and the Baker administration routinely won’t allow them to speak to me.
I don’t blame Gronendyke. It’s the policy from her bosses that’s the problem. They have made it clear that they won’t allow me, or many of my colleagues, to speak directly with the experts in government who can often best answer our questions — even when it’s a story about birds.