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State's format change for COVID-19 briefings raises transparency issues

Jered Ebenreck
Acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase at a June 2020 COVID-19 briefing. The Department of Health made a major change this week in how it will handle such briefings.

The New Mexico Department of Health officials reformatted the delivery of their regular COVID-19 update on their news conference on Wednesday. This change raises some questions about government transparency at the height of New Mexico's Omicron surge. KUNM reporter Jered Ebenreck joins KUNM host Nash Jones to share more about this new format.

NASH JONES: Hi, Jered.

JERED EBENRECK: Hi there, Nash. Thanks for having me.

JONES: Thanks for being here. So, the New Mexico Department of Health gave their regular COVID-19 update on Wednesday, but something was different.

EBENRECK: Definitely so. In the past, the updates were live on social media, allowing the public to comment and watch at the same time, but also reporters could join a press-only live feed in which we could ask questions and follow up in real time with New Mexico Department of Health representatives.

This Wednesday, Acting Cabinet Secretary, David Scrase was joined by Department of Transportation Director of Communications, Marisa Maez who read, approved and submitted questions from reporters to Dr. Scrase. So, this means those questions had to have been submitted by Tuesday at 3 p.m. for the reporter to receive an invitation to a private feed, wherein they could hear Marisa read their questions to Dr. Scrase. Reporters were told many questions could be addressed by staying up to date with the various epidemiological reports on the New Mexico Department of Health COVID-19 website. This was used as a way of screening some of the questions they took.

JONES: And so what did they say about why they're making these changes?

EBENRECK: The press release quotes Dr. Scrase as saying, "In an attempt to be informative, concise, and respectful of everyone's time, the Department of Health is choosing this new format. Our team of incredible epidemiologists will continue to provide extensive up to date information on the COVID website so education will not be lost. I will still be available to answer the media's questions and we will continue to share the answers with the public."

But I spoke with Shannon Kunkel, the director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. She offers this contrasting assessment of the format's change.

"Previous press conferences, reporters were able to ask the questions themselves. They were not read by anyone else. They were able to ask follow up questions and frame questions based on the information that was presented by Dr. Scrase," Kunkel said. "By having to submit their questions so far in advance, they're unable to maneuver and ask follow up questions in that way. And that's problematic."

JONES: So Jered, then how does this format change impact the public? Is the briefing still available on social media?

EBENRECK: Well, they did post the recording of the press conference on social media, but it does mean it's a change from the past. In the past, you could watch it live, comment live, have interactions with other public around the content there. Again, Director Kunkel from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government points out this is also problematic.

"By putting it out on Facebook Live, anyone at any time could just hop into the press conference and see live what was happening. In this way the public had much greater access and they do under this new format," Kunkel said.

This parallels some of the comments you can see on the post about Wednesday's press conference. One comment reads, "What a terrible format! So now the spokesperson gets to filter the questions of the reporters, and there is no chance for followups. This is not a real press conference."

JONES: And Dr. Scrase and Director Maez also announced that they will be slimming down the format of what's released in the daily reports emphasizing numbers for cases, testing, hospitalizations and COVID deaths. What impact will that have on the public's access to information about the pandemic?

EBENRECK: Fundamentally, this means that the Department of Health is attempting to shift the labor spent on these reports daily towards weekly reports that the public can access. Dr. Scrase encouraged reporters (and through them the public) to access the epidemiology reports that are available in New Mexico Department of Health's COVID website if they want to know more. But using to me what seems like a bit of circular logic, Dr. Scrase said that they want to report what the press wants to report and the press only wants to report cases, hospitalizations, deaths and testing. Who knows what the slimmed down reports will look like in the end but we'll likely see some of them this week or next.

JONES: Okay, KUNM reporter Jered Ebenreck, thanks so much for the update.

EBENRECK: Thanks so much Nash for the time
This public service is part of our Your New Mexico Government project, a collaboration between KUNM radio and New Mexico PBS. Support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.

Jered Ebenreck has volunteered in community radio for 30 years--from college radio in Maryland to KGNU, Boulder to WOMR, Provincetown to KUNM in 2004. Jered did Public Health reporting and analysis for KUNM from 2021-2022, while pursuing a graduate program in Public Health at UNM, with an emphasis on Social Ecology. Jered, with the help of his partner, is a caregiver for his mother with Alzheimer's.
Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.