Editor's note: This story is part of Scripps' National News Literacy Week. This campaign promotes news literacy as a fundamental life skill for America to have an educated and empowered populace.
Like so many Northeast Ohioans, local and state leaders started working remotely when the pandemic started. Ten months in, many elected officials continue to have socially distanced and video press conferences. These conferences keep people safe, but the new format prevents reporters from having access to leaders, which makes getting questions answered harder.
If you log on to the News 5 Facebook Page around 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you'll hear Governor Mike DeWine's press conferences updating Ohioans and the press about the status of the coronavirus pandemic in Ohio. These updates started in March with large groups of people in one room and have moved to an all-virtual setting in the following year. Other agencies around the state have done the same thing.
News 5 reporter Jordan Vandenberge has been reporting using virtual press conferences since the early days of the pandemic.
"This is something that we in the media haven't dealt with before," he said. "And, you know, public agencies haven't had to deal with before either. So we were kind of laying the track down as the trains start to get moving."
After the learning period, Vandenberge said big agencies like the Department of Health, and DeWine's office, got a system down. For the governor's press conferences, reporters call in and ask their own questions.
For streams from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, a moderator reads the questions from a Facebook Live feed.
"The pandemic has made that difficult in a lot of instances, but we're not going to stop trying because we believe there are real questions out there that need real answers," said News 5 investigative reporter Scott Noll.
Nolls spends time waiting on Facebook events navigating the newest iteration of a press gaggle.
"I think one of the biggest challenges is just getting that face-to-face interaction and being able to -- if somebody says something and it doesn't make sense, being able to challenge that -- that's our job. That is what we need to do a lot of times to get the hard answers to the questions we're asking."
The quest for those answers can be repetitive.
In early January, Noll was waiting on Facebook for the start of a City of Cleveland press conference.
He had questions for Mayor Jackson.
The conference last more than 90 minutes, and during that time Noll posted his question three different times in the Facebook chat box. The moderator didn't ask his question until near the end of the conference. "The biggest problem is a lot of times you can't ask that follow-up question," Noll said. "If somebody doesn't answer your question and instead just talks around the issue, you need to be able to have that back and forth to make sure you get the answers that people want."
"Follow-up questions, which I would contend are sometimes the most important questions to ask -- they're borderline impossible," Vandenberge said.
Not only have the changes to press conferences limited access, but some officials, like Mayor Jackson, are not giving interviews.
News 5 emailed city public information officers to ask why the mayor is not making himself available for one-on-one interviews. Officials emailed back, pointing toward a video from earlier in January. In that video, Jackson was asked directly why he wasn't taking questions. This is his full response to the question:
"That's the process right now. We're in the middle of a pandemic. And not only that, I found this to be a better dissemination of information because everyone listens and hears the same thing, and there's no filter or no portrayal of whatever I've said one way or another. If I've just said it and you can use whatever I say, in the context in which I've said it. And, then a thirdly that there's -- there are people on this that are not just media, but they're just the general public. And I find that the general public is looking for a lot of information. And they're looking for it in it's proper context and having it accurate. So I will continue this and, and hopefully when we get back to normal, you will have your opportunity to interview me in person."Follow-up emails to city spokespeople did not get answered.
While Cleveland leaders are not giving one-on-one interviews, some elected officials are.
In a health crisis, when people have questions about their safety, the lack of access leaves questions unanswered. Because the country is still in a pandemic, these video conferences could continue, changing what journalism looks like in the future.
"I worry that in the future, our industry, specifically TV, where people are automatically going to defer to Zoom or WebEx or whatever the case may be," Vandenberge said.
He worries the continued limited access will have a trickle down to voters. "If we're not able to get to the root of the matter because we're exchanging information over Zoom. It has a chilling effect."
City of Cleveland: 2 - Attempted to comply, but failed to provide information in a reasonable time frame
Virtual news conferences are infrequent and limit the questions a reporter can ask. Public information officers and other city leaders are not providing interview opportunities outside of this format.