Our View: State's new COVID-19 press briefing has serious flaws

Farmington Daily Times

State health officials on Wednesdays are putting on a bit of theater meant to resemble a press conference about the latest COVID-19 numbers and ways the state is battling the pandemic.

The current administration's health team went in an unusual direction recently by helpfully simplifying the press conference format – they established a process that eliminates the press' ability to ask them questions in live time, and they only answered some of the questions submitted in advance.

They also disinvited the general public from attending online, promising to post a recording online after each event and doling out Zoom access to pre-registered members of the press.

And they tried to cap the event at 30 minutes, with a chunk of that time reserved for Acting Cabinet Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health Dr. David R. Scrase to give the update. The first one under the new format went a bit longer.

The state is charged with effectively communicating information to the public, and by law must disseminate that public information. We'll see how the state's newly-truncated information presentation does that job over time. The Jan. 19 event went about as expected, and our expectations were not high.

The problems with this reformation of a press conference into a puff conference are too many to fit into one editorial, so here are the highlights:

• The event is set up so that the state can pick and choose what topics to present without any time set aside for real, live-time questions about the information they present. Perhaps if Dr. Scrase were replaced by a qualified auctioneer they could speed up the whole report process and make time for actual questions.

• Unless a reporter is really good at consulting Ouija boards, how can they write down – a day in advance – a question about information they have not yet received?

• Why can't the public watch a presser on public information about a killer pandemic while it's happening? And with new COVID-19 infections surpassing 6,000 new cases on Jan. 20 and Jan. 21, when did this topic become so marginal that the governor and other top officials who used to show up for televised briefings when case numbers were lower now decide to skip the event entirely?

The state gamely tried to make this format change sound like an improvement, like a candy company shaving two ounces off a bar of chocolate and noting that the new product now has fewer calories than its previous chocolate bar.

"In place of the Facebook Live format, the newly modified DOH press conferences will host virtual media updates by invite only, and focus primarily on addressing reporter questions," a Jan. 18 press release from the New Mexico Department of Health chirped.

Dr. Scrase said in the press release that the move is an attempt to be respectful of everyone's time, and the detailed information is available on the state's website.

"I will still be available to answer the media's questions and we will continue to share the answers with the public," he said in the release.

Those words are an indication of the kind of good intentions that pave a certain road. The event was a one-way street, but information was released. And while questions were answered they were questions posed a day before the presentation.

It's important that time is made at the end of a press conference to field questions that will help reporters understand any new developments and thus better serve the public. The public should be able to watch the briefing as it happens.

Time will tell how well the new, sitcom-length pressers actually serve the public's best interests.

This editorial is the opinion of the Farmington Daily Times editorial board, not its newsroom. Contact Editor John R. Moses at 505-564-4624, or via email at jmoses@daily-times.com.

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