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County Executive agrees to reopen news briefings to press at urging of local media outlets

Posted at 6:04 PM, Mar 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-31 18:23:44-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — It is our job at 7 Eyewitness News to ask questions to leadership on behalf of taxpayers and provide the most accurate information — in context — for you.
When we cannot do that, it is our responsibility to let you know why.

Tuesday March 31, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz agreed to once again allow reporters to call-in for news briefings after 7 Eyewitness News, and other media outlets, urged his staff to allow professional media outlets to be present during news conferences.

The County Executive, for over a week, had shifted his daily briefings to a Facebook Live format where questions could not be asked in real time.

Denny Wilkins, a journalism professor at St. Bonaventure University is concerned with the county’s response during this pandemic.

“They are not exposing themselves to questions they might not want to be asked by journalists,” said Wilkins. “I think that's wrong. Journalists are trained to ask questions, they're trained to look for information that officials might not want to reveal.”

Peter Anderson, press secretary for the County Executive, responded to our concerns via email.

He said,

I appreciate your outreach here. However, we have had conversations with other media outlets that aren’t reflected in your concerns; they’ve told us that they also want to limit any potential exposure to the virus for their personnel (so this move makes sense to them), that their newsrooms are pushed to the max so having the FB live update is a help, and that they appreciate the public input part as well. I’m sure you understand the gravity of what this virus pandemic is doing, and the underlying responsibility we all have to limit physical interactions as much as possible in order to slow the spread. The Governor and White House have large media spaces to better control spacing for people, a luxury we do not have. Limiting the number of people that enter the Rath building is just one part of how Erie County is limiting physical interactions, in addition to the numerous workforce changes and service-provision changes that have been put in place over the past two weeks.

Thanks also for your understanding on the importance of including the public in the discussion during media updates. We’ve found the response has been great and residents appreciate having equal access to ask questions to their County Executive and Health Commissioner. If you’ve been watching the updates then you’ll know that people are asking questions about things that affect them in their everyday lives during this time, so providing this information to them on-the-spot has been invaluable. As you know, we make every attempt to include media questions specifically in the Q&A that follows each presentation and I’ll encourage your team once again to please submit those to us prior to the beginning of the update each day; in this way we will continue to include your questions with those of the public. We will continue to use these updates and will also work to include more updates involving the use of the pool camera and call-in lines while maintaining our efforts to limit the number of people in attendance.

These are challenging times, and everyone on the Erie County team (including the County Executive, Health Commissioner Burstein, and everyone else helping in response to the pandemic) are very busy and working hard every day. Like you, our concern remains getting accurate information to Erie County residents in as timely a manner as possible. We will continue to do that and look forward to your partnership in doing the same.

7 Eyewitness News can confirm at least two other media outlets reflected our same concerns.

We asked why the Governor of New York and the President of the United States are able to make accommodations for the media, when the Erie County Executive cannot.

“I’d be hard pressed to think that somewhere in Erie County, officials can't find a room thats big enough to satisfy the official’s interests, and the journalist’s interests, who of course, represent the readers and viewers interests.”

We asked why we are not able to ask questions in real time.

“That's absurd,” said Wilkins, reacting to the issue. “Surely you should be able to go into a press conference (and) hear what officials have to say on the topic at hand. To be forced to submit questions before you've heard what they're gong to talk about is putting the cart before the horse.”

We asked why we have not been provided access to county leadership in over a week to ask direct and unfiltered questions.
We were told, in the above statement, the County Executive and Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein are “very busy”.

“But, they're forgetting the fact voters who put them in office, and the journalists responsible for holding them accountable — they're busy in the midst of a crisis (as well) when events are moving too fast.”

Poloncarz said Tuesday: “To our friends in media: I know some of you are not understanding why you can't have complete access to us every hour of the day. That's just not going to happen. But, we will go back to the traditional conference call for the media tomorrow.”

Here is the timeline of events leading up to Poloncarz opening back up his daily briefings to the news media.

March 4, 2020 - Erie County held its first news conference to update county residents on its response to COVID-19

March 12, 2020 - Reporters were asked to limit the number of people in the room to aid in social distancing efforts

March 17, 2020 - Reporters were face-to-face with county leadership for the last time

March 18, 2020 - The County allowed a single camera feed. Reporters were asked to email in questions. (After pushback from The Buffalo News about this format, reporters were able to call-in and ask questions during the daily briefing)

March 23, 2020 - Erie County limited the number of reporters from each outlet allowed on the call to one (1)

March 24, 2020 - Reporters could no longer call in - questions must be submitted in advance for the new Facebook Live format

March 27, 2020 - WKBW chief investigator Charlie Specht submitted a question and was told it would be answered during news briefing. County staff did not ask the question.

March 28, 2020 - No questions from the media were asked or answered during daily briefing

March 31, 2020 - Erie County Executive agreed to reverse the format to allow reporters to call in, but no reporters will be present during briefings