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After the height of the pandemic, there have been an increasing number of hurdles to returning to normalcy. The California government communications staff is no exception to this as concerns have been raised over their interactions with the press and accusations of diminishing transparency. In 2023, the Capitol Correspondents Association of California put out new guidelines for journalists on new challenges hindering their ability to cover California politics. There have been repeated complaints that COVID safety policies have worsened Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration and the California legislature’s communication with the press. The press is a bridge between the public and their elected officials and nothing could be more essential to a democracy. The failure to facilitate transparency cannot continue, regardless of the difficult conditions that led to this.

Reporters depend on in-person press conferences, the chance to ask follow-up questions and media phone lines that connect reporters to staffers. These disappeared with the spread of COVID-19 and still are not fully reinstated. The use of written statements is a poor substitute for interviews and in-person meetings that muddy the waters of communication between journalists and their readership. 

All sectors of the California government need to do more to be transparent with reporters besides opening meetings to the public and making public records available. These documents need to be more readable to the average person. The jargon and complicated language is a way of obstructing transparency with the public as much as refusing an interview is. Beyond these very basic laws, the state does not have set standards for communications policies. Despite a total of 435 employees in the executive branch and press aides working with legislators, the policies surrounding the communications staff vary widely, adding to the confusion.

Newsom specifically has been criticized for how his administration interacts with the press. From favoring national media outlets to blocking journalists from approaching the Governor at public events, Newsom has been proactive in his refusal to allow reporters to do their jobs. As Newsom gears up for a rumored presidential run, his interactions with California press are telling and discouraging. As an elected official, there is an even greater responsibility to allow reporters to fulfill their constitutional mandate of supporting the creation of a well-informed electorate.

The Fourth Estate has been gutted in their ability to provide the public with the news. It used to be that the press could learn information through the simple act of being physically present in the statehouse. Reporters can’t run into officials and staffers in the hall anymore with a wall erected between them. It’s easier to box reporters out and leave their questions unanswered this way, which may be why California, in particular, has been so slow to return to regular press interactions. Access has been restricted to an incredible degree as offices often direct reports to reach out with questions by email, and many offices do not list a media phone number anywhere. Practices such as these allow the government to control the truth and control coverage rather than a reporter’s ability to facilitate the truth.

During the pandemic, CBS’s Julie Watts, over the course of two years, reported on health and safety failures at state COVID-19 testing labs but was barred from speaking to the Health and Human Services Secretary. She was forced to rely upon information later discovered to be false or misleading. The restrictions of shutdowns that the government still refuses to lift meant that Watts and other reporters were left unable to fully investigate and question the California government’s claims. Regardless of whether or not the intent was a cover-up or not, there was no clarity and no chance to push back.

While remote work changed things in a good way for some government agencies, the remnants of shutdowns need to be removed completely. The freedom of the press means nothing if the press is not given ample opportunity to question and investigate. The press exists to hold public officials accountable, not to spin their approved message. Without the media working tirelessly, everyone is left in the dark. Reporters deserve their government’s cooperation, protection and respect, but if they won’t give that then it must be demanded.