How To Cover A Press Conference
I think most press conferences are a waste of reporters’ time. In the course of the average year in Maine, there might be a half dozen of them that would be worth attending for something other than canned comments, carefully prepared answers to easily anticipated questions, and boring video of people standing at a rostrum with incomprehensible charts.
In part, this is the fault of the folks who schedule pressers, knowing what they have to say is of little interest or importance to the general public. But most of the blame for dull stories about these events falls on the journalists who attend and the editors who assigned them to do so.
At the vast majority of press conferences, TV crews arrive with virtually no clue what they’re supposed to cover. They might have a printout of the release the group or person making the announcement sent out, but that’s about it for background. They have no idea what’s new or different or true or false. Print reporters act as if they’ve been given this assignment as punishment (and that may well be the case) and often hang around only long enough to collect the handouts and jot a couple of predictable quotes in their notebooks before departing to cover meatier subjects.
When somebody reports on a newser as if it were something important, it’s such a departure from normal procedure that it can unsettle all concerned. I think that explains the email I received earlier this week from a Republican partisan.
This person was upset about a Sept. 7 story in the Bangor Daily News by staff writer Eric Russell about a press conference held the previous day by GOP Gov. Paul LePage on the subject of domestic violence. While most of the news media did nothing more than regurgitate the official statement from the governor’s office, like this and this, Russell waited until the official proceedings were over to ask a question that should have occurred to any decent journalist: How did LePage reconcile his attempts to stop domestic violence with his support for a bill passed in the last legislative session that allows workers with concealed weapons permits to bring guns to work, so long as they’re stored in their vehicles and out of sight?
There’s nothing unreasonable about wanting an answer to that, and LePage seemed to be prepared.
“I will say this,” he told Russell, “I have never seen a gun hurt anybody. I have seen a person holding a gun hurt someone. So this policy is not attempting to fix gun problems, it’s attempting to fix people problems.”
For eliciting this answer, my GOP correspondent concluded Russell had showed up at the press conference “with an agenda.”
I don’t think so. I think he came prepared to do some real work, and he succeeded. He didn’t touch on the gun issue until the fourth paragraph, cited a Democratic legislator who found the governor’s positions “contradictory,” but still devoted the bulk of his story – which was considerably longer than those of any other news outlet I’m aware of – to LePage’s statement and efforts to combat domestic violence.
That didn’t satisfy the Republican critic: “If reporters want to, they can [dredge] up a bill at every press event a politician attends and suggest that it contradicts what they are saying that day.”
If only more of them went to that much trouble. If only some of them did so consistently.
I do agree with this disgruntled pol on one point. The Bangor News headline – “LePage says domestic violence efforts don’t conflict with gun law” – puts more emphasis on the concealed weapons issue than, perhaps, was merited.
On the whole, though, this was quality work. If I wasn’t so opposed to press conferences, I’d call one to announce that.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.