By Lynn La
In response to the COVID pandemic, many workplaces shifted from in-person to virtual communications, including state government offices. But as the impact of COVID-19 continues to wane, CalMatters’ politics reporter Alexei Koseff found that officials and their media offices in some ways remain just as inaccessible to the press.
- Ashley Zavala, president of the Capitol Correspondents Association of California and KCRA correspondent: “The pandemic did cause some bad behavior. It let some of these agencies and some of these offices get lackadaisical in how they handled the media.”
Before the pandemic, reporters could attend live press conferences and call media phone lines managed by live staffers, making it easy to ask follow-up or clarifying questions quickly.
Now, however, media offices send out written statements, and sometimes require reporters to send their questions via email. Requests to interview policymakers and subject matter experts are often shot down, and agency employees are discouraged from speaking to the press without permission.
But one communications employee argues that complex questions take time and answering them requires many layers of coordination and approval.
- Peter Melton, a public information officer with the Department of Industrial Relations: “We can’t just answer quickly to meet a deadline. It does nobody any favors if we provide information that is incorrect.”
The more cumbersome process forces reporters to extend or miss deadlines, or add a comment after publication. Even worse, it can prevent the media from informing the public of all the relevant details.
Alexei talked to several journalists who say they ran into repeated roadblocks in their stories. They include Julie Watts of television station CBS Sacramento, who spent two years investigating health and safety failures at a state-funded COVID-19 testing lab, and Anna Maria Barry-Jester, who covered rising syphilis rates and the coronavirus vaccine rollout for the nonprofit Kaiser Health News.
While politicians can reach out directly to Californians through social media, there are fewer reporters covering the state Capitol who can scrutinize and interrogate official messages. And now that the process of accessing public officials and sharing information has grown more complicated, the distance between the government and the people it serves can grow even wider.
- David Loy, legal director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition: “These message control practices do real harm to the public interest. Because the people need to know the full story, not just the official story.”
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Citizens Journal
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