How We Got The Story: The frustrations, challenges of covering the governor's COVID-19 briefings

  • Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivers an update on the state's ongoing battle against coronavirus weeks ago during one of his daily press briefings.

    Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivers an update on the state's ongoing battle against coronavirus weeks ago during one of his daily press briefings. BlueRoomStream.com

  • Jake Griffin

    Jake Griffin

 
 
Updated 5/31/2020 10:51 AM

For nearly three months, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has been providing almost daily updates about the state's battle against the spread of the COVID-19 infection.

Reporting on those briefings as access to the governor and his communications staff is significantly reduced has provided its own set of challenges and frustrations for all reporters.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Our first goal covering these briefings is to report new information as quickly as possible and get it updated on the internet fast. In order to do that, we pre-write a shell story of about three paragraphs that leaves space to input the new death and new cases figures as well as the total deaths and total cases in the state. The final paragraph of the first version of the story usually provides a modicum of context for the numbers we reported, such as what percentage of the batch of new tests were positive for infection. The first version of the story is usually online within 10 minutes of the start of the briefing.

As the briefing goes on, Daily Herald reporters add more details while taking notes for what will ultimately become the final version. During the course of the briefing, the story will be updated with new information four or five times on average.

However, the biggest obstacle in covering these briefings is that we have no idea ahead of time what direction the governor's remarks will take us. There is no advance notice of what Pritzker plans to focus on during the briefing. This is problematic, because reporters have to turn questions in ahead of time, either by submitting a question to a designated pool reporter or writing a question in the teleconference portal.

Using the teleconference portal provides its own set of issues, sometimes questions never get seen by moderators, and these are often the last questions asked to the governor or Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. The portal also limits the number of characters reporters can use to type the questions, so nuanced questions are often impossible.

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Questions about statements made at the briefings are almost impossible, unless the pool reporter is interested, but that reporter is often preparing for the next submitted question.

Reporters are also allotted just one question during the briefing, which is unusual for most press gatherings. The process is just as aggravating for reporters as it is for readers and viewers.

Pritzker has also not made himself available to individual local news outlets for one-on-one interviews during this time, though he has chosen to go on national news programs for extended interviews.

There is also a finite amount of time for the briefing. They usually last an hour -- from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. -- Monday through Friday. More than 100 reporters are invited to participate in the briefing daily.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

While there is a limit on how long reporters' questions can be, there is no time limit on the answers given. The governor and health officials often give long-winded answers at the beginning of the briefings and become more terse and hurried as the event goes on, sometimes responding in just a few words or dismissing the question all together.

While Pritzker and Ezike have been consistent figures at these briefings, occasionally the governor will invite other experts to speak, which also curtails the time for questions.

We all long for a return to normalcy. In the meantime, we're navigating these new challenges the best way we can. Reporting is no different from any other job that's been upended by this crisis.

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