Editor's Note: What’s The Point Of A Press Briefing When The Press Isn’t There?
Perhaps you have taken to watching the various briefings delivered every day by our elected officials. For me, it’s a professional imperative that I watch, but I also find them highly informative — not only for the data and news they provide, but also for what they reveal about the person behind the microphone.
All of these briefings — whether it’s President Donald Trump, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine or Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker — follow a similar pattern. The executive makes a few statements, then allows an expert or a member of his cabinet to make a few statements, then the press asks questions and the officials answer them.
There’s an exception to this pattern: Missouri Gov. Mike Parson.
He holds briefings every day except Sunday. But to call these “press briefings” is a misnomer. There is no press present when Parson delivers his remarks. Instead, the media is asked to submit questions to the governor one hour prior to the meeting, before the reporters know what he will be talking about. After Parson or representatives from his cabinet deliver their remarks, one of Parson’s spokespeople reads the pre-screened reporter questions for Parson to answer.
This may not seem like much of a difference from the format of other media briefings. After all, Parson is answering reporters’ questions, right? But this is, in fact, a huge departure and a huge problem. Depending on the day, the governor will answer zero to five questions. According to reporters who cover these briefings, frequently their questions aren’t being asked exactly as they were written. In other words, the questions are shaped to make them easy for the governor to answer. What’s more, because the reporters aren’t physically in the room, they cannot ask for clarification or follow up.
In order for journalists to do their job and convey accurate information to the public, they need direct access to the public official who is making the statements. If the governor misspeaks or gives an inaccurate accounting, the journalist has no chance to make sure that the governor meant what he said.
The best example of how problematic Parson’s press conferences are came to light Saturday. Jaclyn Driscoll, our Statehouse reporter, was following the briefing and tweeting the salient information to her audience when she heard the governor say that the coronavirus is not airborne and therefore going outside is a fine thing to do.
This statement seems to fly in the face of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations just the day before that people wear face masks when they are in public. It struck Jaclyn as inaccurate. However, there was no way for her to raise her hand to ask Parson what he meant. The science behind how the virus spreads is complicated, and I’m not going to explain the facts here (Jaclyn takes care of that for you). However, to hear the leader of Missouri make a statement that could be interpreted as playing down how easily the disease spreads is downright dangerous.
The Missouri Broadcasters Association, of which St. Louis Public Radio is a member, sent an official request to the governor to allow the press to attend. The response was inadequate. Parson claimed that it is safer for all involved to hold the briefings virtually, rather than have people show up in person. The response is even stranger when you consider that the Missouri Legislature is slated to reconvene in person this week, with Parson’s blessing.
In every other case — whether it’s the U.S. president, other governors or even St. Louis’ Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, which is made up of health care professionals — there is a way to hold safe briefings. Take reporters’ temperatures before they are admitted. Space reporters more than six feet apart from each other and from Parson. Make everyone wear masks. Have everyone wash their hands when they arrive and when they leave.
During this pandemic, everyone needs to be responsible for the public well-being. But right now, Missouri’s governor is not doing that. Instead, he’s allowing his words to be open to interpretation and misinterpretation by reporters and the general public as well. We need a governor who is willing to be held accountable for what he is saying and what the public needs to know. Holding press briefings where the press is actually present is the only way to do that.
Shula Neuman is the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio.
Follow Shula on Twitter: @shuneu
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