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The COVID-19 pandemic turned government news conferences into must-watch TV

Caryl Hale is just looking for balance.

The Norton resident, a social media specialist who previously served as field coordinator for the Kansas Rural Center, knows she needs to stay updated about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on local communities. But she doesn’t want to drown in a flood of bad news.

So in the afternoons, she often goes to Facebook and tunes into the state’s daily media briefings featuring Gov. Laura Kelly and Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman.

“I prefer to watch the governor’s briefings live online over news outlets, because they are direct and real-time announcements,” Hale says. “ Having watched a lot of news during the housing crisis in 2008, I have become aware of the need to limit my consumption of news yet still be informed in a timely manner. The governor’s briefings do just that. I try to watch most of the briefings, especially if I know that a big announcement will be made. I prefer this method of receiving information, especially during this pandemic.”

She’s not the only one. The daily briefings, which began March 31, are drawing thousands of viewers – officials say an April 15 “watch party” drew 4,500 viewers – and the KDHE Facebook page has increased its followers from just under 7,000 to roughly 49,000 in recent weeks.

“Feedback we receive is that they have become must-watch TV,” says Kristi Zears, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Live streaming video via platforms such as Facebook Live represent a shift toward giving government officials more autonomy in directly informing the public through social media, rather than relying on gatekeepers to carry the message. News conferences that once played out in front of handful of reporters now reach thousands. It’s a power than can be used to exercise leadership on public health, but some observers think it also comes with dangers.

The briefings in Kansas tend to be informational in nature and measured in tone – presenting a contrast with President Donald Trump’s daily news conferences with the national media. Trump frequently spars with the White House press corps and has made false and misleading claims about the coronavirus. That’s called the newsworthiness of the sessions into question and led to suggestions that networks stop carrying the briefings live, but the president can still reach a large audience on his own.

Kelly’s administration is one of many using virtual news conferences. Governors from California to Ohio to Pennsylvania, Republican and Democratic, have been making frequent use of live streamed updates during the COVID-19 crisis.

Scott Reinardy, the Malcolm Applegate professor in news management and editing at the University of Kansas, acknowledges that the state briefings seem to hold true to their purpose but worries such communication vehicles could be used to shield government officials from scrutiny.

“Clearly, government wants to get info out as quickly as possible,” Reinardy says. “Politicians and governments see (social media) as an effective tool, but that creates concerns about what is presented without anyone being able to directly question what they’re being told.”

The KDHE briefings are set up to be responsive to journalists, however. Some reporters attend the briefings live while others submit questions via text, and the agency’s communications staff is busy at other hours fielding queries from news organizations.

Conner Mitchell, a reporter for the Lawrence Journal-World, says the process works out fine for him in the era of social distancing. A recent briefing experienced audio glitches for a few minutes, he said, but those were “just rudimentary technology issues.”

So far, Mitchell says, there is little sign that the state briefings show the potential to fulfill Reinardy’s concerns. “The governor and Secretary Norman have received widespread praise for their transparency. I can see how that would be a problem at the national level, but I don’t think it’s affected us at the state level.”

One side effect of the briefings is that Norman has become well known around the state. In addition to appearing at the briefings with Kelly, he has hosted regular live streams during which he takes questions from children about the coronavirus and its ability to cause disease. He has also appeared in other videos where he provides practical information. An early April episode on how to make homemade masks drew 29,000 viewers.

“I admire him so much!” one woman said in the comments on that video. “His broadcasts with the governor are to the point, easy to understand and truly heartfelt without being overly alarming!”

Zears said that reaction has been common. “His ability to instill a sense of calm in people while they listen is feedback we receive regularly,” she says.

There are some drawbacks to the Facebook briefings, Zears says. The video doesn’t reach people who don’t use social media, and for non-English speakers “it creates a delay in getting the information,” she says. “The press conferences we put on Vimeo afterwards and close caption in Spanish.”

So are Facebook news conferences here to stay? Perhaps. In the future, Zears says, “we will continue using social mediums as we need to after the pandemic comes to a close.”

Reinardy, though, suspects it could become routine.

“That’s yet to be seen,” he says, “but if it is seen to be effective and work, I can see governments going to that.”

The Journal, the print and digital magazine of the Kansas Leadership Center, is publishing a digital newsletter that explores what is working, what isn’t working and what’s being learned during the response to COVID-19. To receive updates, subscribe here: https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/contact-us/join-our-email-list/

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