On Monday, July 13, 2020, NPR broke the story that more than 1,200 current employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed a letter calling for the federal agency to address “ongoing and recurring acts of racism and discrimination” against Black employees. NPR contributors Selena Simmons-Duffin and Pien Huang note, “The letter offers a rare glimpse inside a famously opaque federal agency, where career staff often work for decades and information is carefully filtered to the public through the press office.”
The internally circulated letter received signatures from 10% of the organization’s 11,000-person workforce as of July 14. In the letter, the signatories lay out seven demands to address issues of racism, such as reviewing outstanding equal employment opportunity complaints, increasing diversity among senior leadership, and most importantly declaring racism a public health crisis. This letter arrives following public outrage over the silence of the organization in publishing official data on racial disparities in COVID-19 transmissions, illnesses and deaths.
In order to maintain unified messaging on disease control and prevention for American policymakers and the public, the CDC aims to limit the release of information from its employees to put the focus on official organizational messaging. In recent years this control over the release of employee information has tightened. In September 2017, Sam Baker, a reporter at Axios, published an internal CDC email by public affairs officer Jeffrey Lancashire, which read, “Effective immediately and until further notice, any and all correspondence with any member of the news media, regardless of the nature of the inquiry, must be cleared through CDC’s Atlanta Communications Office.” This email formalized the CDC’s position on silencing the voices of individual scientists within the organization.
The CDC website currently makes clear that scientists are only available to journalists following the approval by a CDC press officer.
The anonymous release of this letter provides a unique view into the inner workings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In recent years scientists have followed agency protocol to hold restraint in speaking with the media. However, the release of this letter could signify an increasing non-compliance with this policy. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage through the United States, and Americans stand divided on how to address the mounting case numbers, disgruntled scientists may begin to take action to report their findings when the CDC refuses to do so.Tags: COVID-19, federal, internal PR, letter to corporate, Media Outreach, public health, racism