Reporters excluded from Maine CDC media briefings after being labeled ‘advocacy journalists’

August 25, 2020

Reporters Katherine Revello of The Maine Wire and Evan Popp of the Beacon were barred from Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly livestreams after the agency changed its media policy on Aug. 25, 2021, to exclude those it deemed to be “advocacy journalists.”

The agency reversed the policy on Oct. 6. Earlier that day, the Maine Policy Institute, a policy and lobbying organization and parent company to The Maine Wire, had publicized the initial policy change in a series of tweets.

Lauren McCauley, editor of the Maine People’s Alliance-affiliated Beacon, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that Popp was notified by email on Aug. 25 that he could no longer attend the weekly news briefings.

In that email, CDC Communications Director Robert Long wrote that the agency could “no longer accommodate advocacy journalists,” and asked that any questions be directed to him.

Long did not respond to the Tracker’s requests for comment.

McCauley told the Tracker that Long later explained the change in policy during a phone call, saying it was done because the briefings had gotten too long and the agency needed to “preserve the CDC director’s time.”

According to McCauley, Beacon reporters had regularly attended the briefing without issues throughout the spring and summer.

McCauley told Maine’s Bangor Daily News that the decision to exclude Beacon reporters, “harms the public interest and is especially damaging for folks who too often are left out of the conversation already.”

Jacob Posik, the editor of The Maine Wire, said Revello was hired in late May as a news reporter to cover the regular briefings and had attended one held on July 28 after requesting a link from the Maine CDC to attend.

The once-daily briefings were halted by the agency during the summer as cases decreased, but weekly briefings began in early September as the Delta variant spread throughout the state, Posik told the Tracker.

But, according to Posik, The Maine Wire had stopped receiving media advisories about the briefings in early September.

Posik said the outlet has been highly critical of the state’s CDC data in their reporting of the pandemic and believes that the policy changed only after the outlet asked to attend the news briefings.

“Once we hired a full time news reporter to hold the administration accountable, they kicked us out and called us advocacy journalists,” he said.

Posik said that he contacted CDC communications director Long in September after not receiving an invitation to attend two consecutive briefings. After almost three weeks of messaging and calling state officials, Posik said he got an answer to his original inquiry from Long on Oct. 6 that stated “We are no longer able to accommodate advocacy journalists during the media briefings.”

“I responded to him by saying ‘Respectfully, that’s not how the First Amendment works — please show me a copy of the policy that you’re using to bar the attendance of my journalist to these briefings,’” Posik said.

Posik has filed Freedom Of Access Act requests for a copy of the state CDC’s media policy and for the agency’s internal emails and messages that could explain the policy change but said he has not yet received any documents.

During the Oct. 6 briefing, a reporter attending the livestream asked Maine’s Health asked Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah how the CDC determines which outlets are allowed to ask questions during the briefings and how the policy agrees with the First Amendment.

Both Lambrew and Shah defended the agency’s policy to restrict the briefings by saying they were reserved for officials to “answer questions in the space of an hour from a set of credentialed reporters.”

McCauley and Posik confirmed to the Tracker that following the Oct. 6 briefing the agency sent an email to the outlets reinviting them to attend future briefings.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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