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State’s media are trapped in a box

I never thought as a reporter I’d be writing a column to tell a government official to stop talking so much, but here I am calling for an end to the twice-a-week COVID-19 briefings by Gov. Jim Justice. Or at the very least end the completely virtual briefings and return to in-person briefings.

Since March 2020, the West Virginia print and broadcast media have been trapped in a box — at one point daily but now merely every Tuesday and Thursday – awaiting Justice and other state officials to brief the public on the latest with the COVID-19 virus.

Nearly 17 months ago, these briefings were highly valuable when information about the coronavirus was scarce. No one knew how bad it would get, how it was spreading, where it was spreading. Briefings started out in person in the Governor’s Reception Room. In-person briefings ended after Justice announced he had been in physical contact with the very first person infected with COVID-19 back in March 2020.

It made sense to go virtual at the time. The Reception Room, where press conferences typically happen, was very small. More often than not, the room would be crowded not by media, but by other government officials and lobbyists wanting to know what the Governor would say about this or that. At one point at the beginning of COVID, the briefing moved to a conference room at the Department of Commerce to space the press out, but it’s been virtual ever since.

When the virtual briefings first started, each member of the press would get one question. Follow-up questions could be posed in the chat window and they would be answered. But very quickly it went to simply one question per outlet with no opportunities for follow-ups. This made things difficult, as while Justice never really shied away from a question, he often didn’t understand the question or he would give an unrelated answer.

When cases started to increase, particularly in last fall and winter, the virtual briefings probably saved lives. We do have older members of the press corps who would have been more susceptible to the virus. But when cases started going down, vaccinations went up, and things began to re-open, in-person press conferences should have re-started. They didn’t.

The excuses given by Justice for this have rang hollow. One of the reasons for keeping the briefings virtual was to allow press not in the Charleston-area to participate and ask questions. The virtual briefings have allowed reporters from across the state to participate and that’s good, but there is also no reason why they can’t allow press in the Reception Room while also still taking questions virtually at the same time.

Justice has said he likes the way the virtual briefings are done. It keeps things orderly and allows Justice and the state officials to better answer questions. Justice – when responding to reporters who ask why the briefings remain virtual – often says he always answers every question asked. But as I said above, there are plenty of times when Justice misunderstands a question. There is no way to shout out on the virtual briefing when you didn’t actually get an answer to your question. The Governor’s communications staff sometimes don’t call on certain reporters for whatever reason.

Not only should briefings allow for in-person representation by press, but the Governor’s Office also should really consider nixing the briefings altogether or limit them to once per week. Especially as cases continue to decrease (as I write this, we’re at 1,026 active cases and going down daily), these briefings are having the opposite of their intended effect. Even pleas warning about the Delta/India variant are falling on deaf ears (though it took 10 days for Delta variant cases to increase from 12 … to 15).

Nearly all of the data presented by Justice in his two briefings is found on the daily email and dashboard update by the Department of Health and Human Resources. Between those two sources of information, press have all the data they need. All Justice is doing is reading that same data. The only person who talks more than Justice is Dr. Clay Marsh, and he is basically repeating the same warnings each week. If I’m starting to tune them out, I have a feeling the public is as well.

I went looking around to our surrounding states to see how they are doing their briefings, and many have returned to in-person briefings. Most have also limited their briefings to once per week. I have no idea why Justice is keeping these briefings up. They certainly gave him a political advantage during the 2020 primary and general election. However, Justice is term-limited now, so I have no idea what the advantage is to doing these briefings. The numbers of views on YouTube for these briefings have only decreased.

I’ve noticed that some reporters have stopped participating as often (I’m one of them). Other reporters have asked the Governor’s Office for permission to physically attend a briefing, only to be rebuffed. Others have called for a press boycott of the briefings until they return to in-person. I don’t know what the answer is, but members of the press are getting tired of being trapped in a box when the Capitol Building itself is open.

(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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