Dear Fellow Journalists,
First, thank you for your hard work, your personal sacrifice and your rapid innovation, all of which are allowing you to continue to serve the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no question in my mind that the facts you are reporting are saving lives.
Second, thank you for doing your very best to work on behalf of your viewers, listeners and readers to seek vital public health information from state and local officials. Many, if not most, governors, county officials and mayors have fielded thousands of questions from you about critical issues during these extraordinary times.
Some have done so in a manner consistent with the best interests of the public, by continuing to allow journalists – who serve as surrogates for the same people the elected officials serve – to attend their briefings and ask questions in person, with opportunities for follow-up inquiries seeking clarification or further information.
Other governors and public officials around the country, however, don’t seem to be doing as well.
We at RTDNA are hearing complaints from members in parts of the country about how some public officials are restricting access to journalists and questions during their daily, or otherwise regularly scheduled, COVID-19 briefings. Many, we are told, no longer allow reporters and photojournalists to attend in person; instead, they must submit questions either by telephone or email.
Some members in California, for example, tell us Gov. Gavin Newsom’s staff serves as gatekeepers, deciding which phoned-in questions get through to the governor. Members complain that only favored news outlets seem to get to ask most of the questions each day. We have heard similar concerns about the way Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and his staff conduct his COVID briefings.
If you want to ask New York Mayor Bill de Blasio questions, you must phone them in, but that’s only if his briefing happens to be at city hall. If he conducts them from a remote location, you can show up in person.
One of the most concerning states, however, is in the middle of the country. Some of our members in Missouri, for example, tell us they are hampered in doing their jobs whenever Gov. Mike Parson holds his daily briefings.
If you’re a journalist in the Show Me State desperate to keep the public you serve informed by asking Gov. Parson questions, you must email them in advance to the governor’s communications staff. A member of that staff – not journalists – then selects which questions will be asked during the briefing, and there is no chance for follow-up.
More years ago than I care to admit, when I was a news director in Missouri, I covered Mike Parson, who then was the sheriff of a rural county. I tried to use that long-ago connection to help appeal for greater access in a letter I sent to the governor last week.
On April 19, three days after I sent my letter, Parson’s office announced it would hold daily briefings in that coming week – three virtual on his official Facebook page, as described above, and two in person – with journalists in the room, so long as they practiced social distancing.
Progress, but not enough, governor!
That said, we are very much aware that California and Missouri can’t be the only states where governors, mayors and other public officials are not serving their constituents as well as they could if journalists were allowed a more active role in briefings. Please let us know if you’re having problems in your state. We’ll be happy to advocate for better access on your behalf. Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, the Radio Television Digital News Association is calling on state and local authorities across the United States to be completely transparent with the public about the COVID-19, and to answer questions about it asked by journalists without unreasonable restrictions. We have issued standards for news briefings during coronavirus which include suggestions that have been used satisfactorily on other occasions and are not difficult to execute.
At this moment, during the greatest pandemic and, many say, the most consequential news story, of our lifetime, government officials’ responsibility to provide the public with the full, unfiltered truth has never been more important.
Neither has the role of journalists.
Please let us know how we can help.
Chief Operating Officer