News: CJ Exclusives

Cooper administration to continue COVID-19 news briefings with no reporters present

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen at a May 2020 COVID-19 briefing. (Pool photo)
N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen at a May 2020 COVID-19 briefing. (Pool photo)

As Republican lawmakers fight Gov. Roy Cooper over the COVID-19 economic lockdowns, even their approach to news briefings has diverged. 

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, held an in-person news conference Monday, May 18. But secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen says she will continue virtual briefings as she encourages private businesses to telework. She has briefed reporters every weekday since COVID-19 took hold. Cooper has joined her at these briefings a couple of times a week.

“We want to make sure we can create a scenario that we can continue to social distance and continue to be transparent and take questions every single day,” Cohen said Tuesday responding to a question from Carolina Journal at a virtual news briefing. “I’d imagine we’re going to continue with distance briefings at least for the time being. … We want to create the most safe environment that we can.”

An expert on government transparency says these briefings aren’t subject to the N.C.’s Open Meetings law. But they can demonstrate a healthy commitment to give-and-take between government officials and the media, who serve as public watchdogs.

During the Cohen/Cooper briefings, reporters are emailed a telephone number, which they can call to register to ask a question, listing their name and media outlet. Someone then screens the callers to decide who asks.

CJ has registered to ask questions at most of the briefings since they began in mid-March. CJ’s reporters have been allowed to ask questions on three occasions — only once when Cooper was running the briefing. Other journalists, including Charlotte-based reporter Brett Jensen, have said they’ve been in the queue to ask a question and been shut out.

“Whenever the administration gives a press briefing, they do it at their pleasure and with their own restrictions. Every administration does that differently,” said Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition and Sunshine Center at Elon University. “One of the problems that we’ve seen with virtual meetings, of all kinds, is that in a virtual space there is sometimes a lack of opportunity for the press to follow up and ask more questions.”

Cohen has given reporters opportunities to ask follow-up questions when requested. But virtual meetings rarely recreate the atmosphere of in-person briefings, Fuller said. 

“The briefings look fundamentally different than they would if they were being held in person,” Fuller said. “The sensation and energy of a real press briefing is sometimes not easy to duplicate in a virtual environment. Sometimes those energies are good for the public. There’s a little bit better of a power balance.”