- Published On
- May 1, 2020
- Written by
- Stephanie Sugars from Freedom of the Press Foundation
Journalists covering state responses to the coronavirus pandemic are hampered as officials reduce seating in briefing rooms, introduce unreliable technology and, in some cases, refuse real-time questions.
Governors have also seemingly used the crisis to retaliate for critical coverage, blocking access or reducing press pools to friendlier outlets. But some state governments have pivoted with more grace, using combinations of rotating press pools, video conferencing and call lines to protect media access during this unprecedented crisis.
Exclusion After Criticism
The most aggressive rollback of state sunshine laws, which keep government meetings open to the public, came from Hawaii’s Gov. David Ige, whose mid-March emergency declaration effectively suspended both the state’s public records and open meetings statutes.
The state’s daily coronavirus meetings have continued despite the declaration that alarmed numerous press freedom groups. But Paul Aker, publisher and reporter for the Maui Alert, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that Ige’s office has continuously barred his outlet from asking questions during the governor’s remote news conferences.
Aker said that the denial was in apparent retaliation for several critical stories the outlet published, specifically around testing and what he deemed government misinformation.
According to a media advisory shared with the Tracker, news organizations are required to RSVP for each briefing with the name, outlet and phone number for the journalist who will be participating in the briefing. Aker said he has attempted to RSVP on multiple occasions, to no avail.
Aker said Ige’s office has not released any documentation of the standards they are using to determine which outlets can participate. He also noted that he has regularly sought and received information and interviews from the governor’s administration in the past.
“It seems like a very arbitrary and capricious standard that they’re using, if any. My estimation is that it’s more than arbitrary, it’s probably just vindictive: They don’t like the questions so they’re going to eliminate the questioner,” Aker said.
Honolulu’s Civil Beat reported that journalists who are able to participate in the briefings were often limited in the number of questions they could ask. Any follow-up questions, the outlet reported, were directed to a generic email address.
Ige’s office did not respond to the Tracker’s request for comment.
Similarly, reporters in other states have said that they were kept out of their governor’s press briefings in retaliation for critical questions or reporting.
In Florida, Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald's Tallahassee bureau chief, requested that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ briefings be modified to allow for social distancing, a request later echoed in a letter signed by editors from seven local outlets.
When Klas, who also reports for the Tampa Bay Times, arrived at the capitol in Tallahassee on March 28, she was barred from attending the governor’s press briefing. A spokeswoman for DeSantis told Klas it was because of her request.
“I asked for social distancing. I didn’t ask to be excluded,” Klas told the Herald.
In an editorial, the Miami Herald dubbed the move "vindictive, petty — and illegal."
DeSantis, the editorial board wrote, “should be ashamed because, in not allowing Klas to do her job and ask the serious questions that deserve his serious answers, he is really denying access to the Floridians who look to these media outlets for vital information.”
In late March, Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced traded her normal press briefings for special televised reports with the island’s coronavirus task force. The briefings, aired by taxpayer-funded broadcaster WIPR three times a week, generally informed the public about the latest health guidelines, curfew orders and more.
Armando Valdés, host of Sobre la Mesa on Radio Isla and former chairman of the WIPR board, told the Tracker that WIPR began inviting other outlets to attend the briefings and ask questions of the task force.
“At some point, I guess, the task force members started to feel uncomfortable by the questions,” Valdés said. “A lot of questions started cropping up concerning the purchase of these rapid tests through intermediaries in Puerto Rico that essentially drove the price up on the tests and were going to make a killing from the government’s purchase.”
El Nuevo Dia, a newspaper in San Juan, began publishing reports in early April that were critical of the government’s purchasing decision, including that the intermediary who received $38 million for tests was inexperienced and had ties to the governor’s political party.
Shortly after, Vázquez stopped taking questions at the press conferences.
On April 12, WIPR’s president Eric Delgado confirmed that correspondents from other outlets would no longer be able to participate in the briefings, according to NotiCel. Delgado told CBS News that excluding the outlets was his decision in order to ensure that the public receives “pure information.”
Valdés told the Tracker that he was convinced the move was taken at the behest of the governor’s administration, and that an initial tweet from WIPR indicated that the decision had not come from the station. The governor’s administration, however, denied that it was involved in the decision to bar other reporters from the task force programs, according to El Nuevo Dia.
The Puerto Rico Journalists Association — Asppro by its Spanish acronym — condemned the move in an April 13 letter, demanding that the governor’s administration be transparent during the coronavirus pandemic.
“For the Asppro board of directors, the government’s decision not to hold press conferences and to now eliminate what was already very limited access for journalists in those special sessions, means suppressing access to public information that every citizen has the right to know,” the letter reads.
Telemundo Puerto Rico said it would no longer air the task force briefings, and station President Jose Cancela said in a statement that the move to bar outside reporters from the briefings was “something that not even President Trump dares to do.”
“Telemundo cannot in good conscience lend itself to broadcast a propaganda program,” he said.
Vázquez’s office did not respond to the Tracker’s request for comment.
At the same time, Puerto Rico has made it illegal for media outlets or social media accounts “to transmit or allow the transmission” of “false information” concerning the administration’s response to the pandemic.
Reduction of Access
For governors, limiting access to press briefings can also be a way of controlling the messaging.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has been increasingly inconsistent in allowing the full press corps to cover his coronavirus press briefings, Jeremy Blackman, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, told the Tracker.
Abbott has opted to speak from the public reception room of the governor’s mansion when making his most consequential and controversial announcements, Blackman said, such as when he announced the statewide stay-at-home order and more recently when he detailed plans to restart the local economy.
The reception room is significantly smaller than the auditorium Abbott uses for general coronavirus response briefings, so attendance is limited to a press pool of three outlets per social distancing guidelines.
Gubernatorial Communications Director John Wittman told the Tracker that the administration has chosen to host briefings in the reception room when the content of Abbott’s announcements made it a “more appropriate setting.”
Wittman also highlighted that the governor has done more than 140 television interviews since the beginning of the crisis, in addition to numerous print interviews.
“The idea that the governor has not been available for questions is simply not true,” Wittman said.
Blackman told the Tracker that Abbott’s administration has not been open about how outlets are selected to participate in the press pool. He noted, however, that the pool has been rotating and typically includes representatives from at least one print and one broadcast outlet.
As of press time, Wittman did not respond to emailed questions about the press pool.
Blackman said that even when more reporters are allowed into the room, they’re often limited to just one question each, with no follow ups.
“Without follow ups we don't have the ability to press in on certain points, and it’s frustrating to not be able to get straight answers,” Blackman said.
When asked about the one-question policy, Wittman told the Tracker that it is intended to allow all reporters the opportunity to question the governor, rather than a few outlets dominating the Q&A sessions.
In Hawaii, where the administration has allowed for suspension of open meeting laws, reporters who are allowed to participate have to use both thumbs to ask a question.
Nick Grube, a reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, told the Tracker that Gov. Ige is holding press briefings daily, or almost daily, via Facebook Live. But only one reporter per outlet has been allowed to participate, he said, and not in-person: Any questions from the reporter must be texted to a communications staff member.
The state-issued media advisories instruct journalists that their questions will not be read if it is “unclear” or if it has already been answered, and that if more than one question per text is submitted then only the first question will be asked.
Grube said this system makes it impossible to ask follow-up questions, and provides public officials the opportunity to dodge questions that may reflect poorly on the administration or its pandemic response.
“If there was ever a time for the government to be transparent, or even more transparent than it normally is, it’s during a public health crisis,” Grube said.
Elimination of Live Questions
While Texas, Hawaii and other states may limit the amount of live questions and follow-ups, some states are completely restricting real-time questions.
In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration initially required all questions for the coronavirus briefings to be submitted ahead of time, ConvergenceRI reported. After pushback from journalists, however, the outlet said policy shifted to allow journalists to submit text questions during a 15-minute Q&A at the end of the briefing, followed by a post-briefing conference call. Reporters are still requested to — on the honor system — only submit one question every other day.
For their COVID-19 briefings, Govs. Mike Parson of Missouri and Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania initially limited journalists’ questions to only those submitted ahead of time.
Beginning in early March, journalists in Pennsylvania were required to submit their questions for the governor through a web form, LancasterOnline reported. They were then read aloud by the health department’s director of communications at the end of Gov. Wolf’s briefing.
David LaTorre, who served as press secretary for former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker, told LancasterOnline that the inability to ask follow up questions was particularly concerning.
“Some may not see the problem, but it allows the governor to answer questions broadly without any fear of having to provide specifics or be challenged on his answer,“ LaTorre said.
When asked whether questions were screened, Department of Health communications director April Hutcheson — who recites the questions during briefings — told LancasterOnline she won’t do that and that the governor is indeed asked the tough questions.
Wolf Press Secretary Lyndsay Kensinger told the Tracker in an email that the governor’s office opted to host virtual press conferences after several reporters asked for options to attend remotely.
She denied that reporters were required to submit questions in advance of the briefings through a web form, but as of press time did not clarify whether the policy was recently changed or had never been in place.
Kensinger also emphasized that the governor hosts regular conference calls during which Wolf does not provide prepared remarks, instead only answering reporters’ questions.
In an April 17 news conference outlining Pennsylvania’s framework for reopening, Wolf was still answering pre-submitted questions. On April 21, C-SPAN recorded a conference call with reporters that involved live questions.
Missouri had a similar policy requiring advanced questions beginning when Gov. Parson banned gatherings of 10 or more on March 20. The Kansas City Star reported that journalists had to submit questions via email an hour ahead of press briefings, which are live-streamed on Facebook.
As in Pennsylvania, the pre-submission system meant no questions could be asked in real-time for breaking news, if they were taken at all (Parson took no questions following his April 2 briefings, according to The Star).
When Parson announced during an April 9 briefing that he was ordering schools closed for the remainder of the academic year, he did not have to answer any questions about it because the news broke during the livestream.
Gubernatorial Communications Director Kelli Jones told the Tracker via email that Parson has held 36 press briefings since March 17 and answered hundreds of emailed and real-time questions from reporters.
“Transparency is very important to Governor Parson and his administration,” Jones said.
Mark Gordon, president and CEO of the Missouri Broadcasters Association, told the Star that the inability to ask questions “on the spot” made transparency especially challenging.
“The frustration is that other states are doing it and the president of the United States is doing it. So I don’t know why we can’t do it in Missouri. And that is disappointing, to say the least,” Gordon said.
In Parson’s April 29 news briefing focusing on the state’s reopening, reporters were able to ask questions of Parson and other officials in real-time.
Introduction of Remote Briefings
Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s “first fully digital news conference” using Cisco’s teleconferencing platform, Webex, did not go as smoothly as his office had hoped, The Idaho Press reported.
When Little announced his extension of the state’s stay-at-home order on April 17, the video, when available, was grainy, dark and riddled with jerky video and audio reverberation. The stream failed entirely for a few outlets, including Idaho Public Television.
The Press reported that the governor’s office had elected to have no media in the room in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Gubernatorial Press Secretary Marissa Morrison Hyer told The Press that for future briefings, Idaho Public Television will provide a live pool feed that should improve video quality. She also said that reporters would continue to have “interactive access” so they can ask questions and follow-ups in real-time.
Morrison did not respond to the Tracker’s request for comment.
Like Idaho, other governors are working to incorporate teleconferencing and remote briefings into their regular interactions with the press. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis also began taking remote questions through Webex in late March, though reporters still have the option to attend briefings in person. Reporters in Wisconsin can call in questions to Gov. Tony Evers through a Zoom line, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has a separate room set up with a video feed and microphone so reporters can pose questions following his news conferences at the statehouse.
Maria Polletta, a reporter for The Arizona Republic, told the Tracker that overall she and her colleagues are satisfied with the integration of digital participation into Gov. Doug Ducey’s press conferences, though there have been some “hiccups.”
“Reporters — including me — started pushing for some sort of interactive digital option as it became more apparent how dangerous it was to be in small spaces with other people. And they did respond to that by doing Zoom conferences,” Polletta said. She added that reporters are still able to attend in person if they so choose.
For those attending via Zoom, they “raise” their hand in the application in order to ask a question, Polletta told the Tracker. Anecdotally, however, she said that some outlets have complained about not being called on in multiple briefings in a row.
Polletta noted that what reporters are most frustrated with is the growing infrequency of Ducey’s briefings.
“There’s not an announcement every single day, which I don’t think anyone expects,” Polletta said. “But we constantly have Arizonans calling us, emailing us, asking us what’s going to happen next, asking if the governor has said more on x, y or z and we often don’t have an answer.”
At Ducey’s April 29 press briefing — one week after his last one — the governor took questions from reporters for about 30 minutes. The Republic reported that he abruptly ended the Q&A session, however, when reporters pressed him on his decision to withhold details about the spread of the coronavirus through the state’s nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
“That was the question. That is the answer. That will have to satisfy for today,” Ducey announced before walking out of the room.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Protection of Newsgathering
With the majority of the nation’s cases concentrated on the East Coast, all eyes have been on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose daily press briefings have won him accolades for their mixture of leadership, humanity and effective PowerPoints. The briefings, livestreamed on the state government website and often broadcast on networks, are also attended in-person by reporters. Following his prepared statements and slides, the governor takes questions and follow-ups.
During a briefing on April 24, a pool reporter even thanked Cuomo for his accessibility and for continuing to take and answer questions from the media.
Other states — like Kansas, Michigan, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Utah — have amended or implemented temporary orders around their Open Meetings Acts, allowing government bodies to hold remote meetings. Issues with technology abound — dogs barking in the background in Mississippi and tape-delays instead of live meetings in Pennsylvania — but the press, and the public, benefit from the access.
Editor's note: This article was updated after publication to reflect a response from Missouri Gov. Parson's administration.
Shortly after publishing this analysis, several reporters from the United States commonwealths reached out to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker with additional information on the state of press briefing access and government transparency in their U.S. territories.
Press briefings and transparency in the territories
In the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Gov. Ralph Torres stopped holding COVID-19 press conferences entirely following technical difficulties on a Zoom call.
A reporter working on the island of Saipan told the Tracker that Torres’ March 30, 2020, briefing was riddled with problems after the link was mistakenly shared with the public.
“It took about 40 minutes to establish a new Zoom link with a password that the press secretary sent out individually to each reporter, which resulted in not every outlet being able to be on the call,” the reporter said.
The reporter, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for potential retaliation, told the Tracker that the press secretary cited those technical issues as reasons why there would be no press briefings the following week or the week after that. When pressed for an answer as to when the next briefing would be held, the press secretary reportedly said that the governor was busy.
At least two reporters told the Tracker that questions emailed to the governor’s office are met with instructions to wait for official press releases that are posted every few days.
On April 26, the governor’s office released a pre-recorded “special address” and update from the governor that did not include a Q&A session.
When asked about the lack of interactive press briefings, gubernatorial Press Secretary Kevin Bautista told the Tracker via messaging app that three on-island media outlets and several radio stations receive all of the government’s public information.
“The governor and our communications team respond to media inquiries from our on-island outlets with no restrictions,” he said.
South of the Northern Mariana Islands, in Guam, reporters were muted while asking questions during Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero’s April 30 press conference about the island’s COVID-19 recovery plan as it was streamed live on Facebook, The Guam Daily Post reported.
Communications Director Janela Carrera cut off reporters or stepped in to prevent Gov. Leon Guerrero from responding to questions that were not “relevant to the COVID Recovery Plan” presented during the briefing, the Post reported.
KUAM reporter Adriana Cotero told the Tracker that she was muted midway through asking about apparent political favoritism. She was able to finish her question, she said, but was muted again through Carrera’s response and unable to clarify or ask a follow-up question.
“I know myself, and I would have said you have no authority to control what the press or the people ask,” she said.
When asked about muting the media, Carrera responded with a statement to KUAM that she did not censor questions, and had adhered to that briefing’s policy of only taking questions about recovery plans.
While briefings had been taking place nearly every weekday, those immediately following the April 30 recovery plan briefing were cancelled.
On May 4, Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio went on KUAM’s morning radio show and apologized for the restrictions on reporters’ questions. Later that day Policy Director Carlo Branch offered an apology as well, claiming responsibility for the restrictions.
The following day, the governor’s office held a 2 ½ hour press briefing during which they allowed unlimited questions and gave reporters control over their own mics. It is unclear if this policy will continue, as the following days’ briefings have been cancelled.
Gov. Leon Guerrero’s office could not be reached for comment.
In May, KUAM joined more than 140 media organizations across the United States in signing onto a National Freedom Of Information Coalition statement to local governments voicing concerns about transparency and access during the pandemic. Signees also include the Missouri Broadcasters Association, Florida Press Association and at least six Tracker partner organizations.
“We strongly urge government branches and agencies to recommit to, and not retrench from, their duty to include the public in the policy-making process, including policies relating to COVID-19 as well as the routine ongoing functions of governance,” the letter reads in part.
“At all times, but most especially during times of national crisis, trust and credibility are the government’s most precious assets.”