Access Denied

Access Denied

Knox County faces criticism for preventing a News Sentinel reporter from participating in a health department briefing.

by scott barker • May 11, 2020

Screenshot from the Friday, May 8 Health Department briefing (Knox County Health Department image).

The Knox County Health Department blocked News Sentinel science writer Vincent Gabrielle from access to an electronic news conference on Friday, one day after the publication of an article he wrote that raised questions about the department’s response to queries about COVID-19 benchmarks.

The county alleges the News Sentinel's reporting on Health Department COVID-19 metrics was inaccurate and misleading.

Knox County spokesman Mike Donila — himself a former News Sentinel reporter — characterized Gabrielle’s reporting as inaccurate and misleading. Gabrielle and his editor, Joel Christopher, are standing by the reporting.

Christopher said the county’s actions were repugnant. “It was totally inappropriate and outrageous to prevent a member of the media from attending a news conference,” he said. “They’re not doing anything that hurts the News Sentinel. It’s insulting to the people of Knox County.”

The county’s actions drew scorn from media organizations and journalism scholars.

Government agencies should not ban reporters from access to online press conferences,” the East Tennessee chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists said in a statement. “An attempt to impugn the reputation of a reporter as a justification for doing so shirks the responsibility of public service.” (Compass co-founder Jesse Fox Mayshark is on the organization’s board of directors.)

The story was picked up by the Washington Post, which published an article about the dust-up on its website Friday night.

Blocked Entry

The dispute erupted on Friday when Gabrielle attempted to access the Health Department’s daily news briefing, which is held online via the Zoom platform because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The briefings are livestreamed on the Health Department’s Facebook page and YouTube, but reporters can only ask questions if they have access to the Zoom platform.

According to an account in the News Sentinel, he was denied access to the virtual meeting and told to contact Donila, who is the communications director for Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs.

Donila told the News Sentinel that Gabrielle was barred because of "unprofessional behavior directed toward the Health Department and his inaccurate reporting that has been constantly riddled with half-truths, missing facts and a constant false narrative."

Gabrielle said that no one at the Health Department has brought up issues with specific facts he has reported. “I stand behind my work,” Gabrielle said in an interview on Sunday. “I’m not doing anything other science writers nationwide aren’t trying to do.” 

Donila noted that Christopher was allowed access to Friday’s media briefing. "Invitations to these calls are courtesies provided by Knox County and not mandated by law," Donila told the News Sentinel.

Michael Martinez, a University of Tennessee journalism professor who has written on the topic, said Donila is correct that press conferences are not mandated by law, but government agencies that choose to hold press conferences cannot discriminate against who may attend based on the content of their reporting. 

He cited several court rulings backing that concept, including one from the 1st Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Anderson v. Cryovac, Inc.: “The danger in granting favorable treatment to certain members of the media is obvious: it allows the government to influence the type of substantive media coverage that public events will receive. Such a practice is unquestionably at odds with the First Amendment. Neither the courts nor any other branch of the government can be allowed to affect the content or tenor of the news by choreographing which news organizations have access to relevant information.”

Martinez told Compass, “Donila stated Vincent Gabrielle was barred specifically because of the story he wrote the previous day. That is discrimination based on content. Even though Donila stated other KNS reporters could attend, who the News Sentinel sends to report is not his decision to make.”

Gabrielle, who has a master’s degree in immunology and microbial disease from Albany Medical College in New York, has aggressively pressed Health Department officials to explain the benchmarks they are using to determine whether to move forward with the phased reopening of the local economy.

Mark Harmon, a UT journalism professor who also served on the Knox County Commission, said Gabrielle “clearly has a background that allows for him to ask very deep-level questions about the nature and quality of the data going into decisions, and to compare that data to other locations.”

Reporting Questioned

An article Gabrielle wrote that was published last Thursday stated that Health Department officials refused to elaborate on how they would use certain benchmarks to assess the level of risk. The benchmarks are on the Health Department’s website, along with “traffic signal” icons that can be green, yellow or red, depending on the risk level.

“But what does it look like to not be on track? It's impossible to know because health department leaders have repeatedly refused to say what would trigger a shift between a green light to yellow or red,” Gabrielle wrote in the article.

On May 1, when the Health Department unveiled the benchmarks, Charity Menefee, the department’s director of communicable and environmental disease and emergency preparedness, said staff epidemiologists would be made available to answer questions about the benchmarks in the future.

The following Monday, May 4, the Health Department’s Amy Dolinky sent an email to reporters asking them to submit questions in writing for the epidemiologists, who would answer them during the week. 

Gabrielle submitted questions, according to Donila, as did Compass and WBIR-TV, among others. “I thought they were good questions,” Donila said. “I would have asked those questions.”

Dolinky didn’t say exactly when reporters should expect the answers, but said the epidemiologists would respond during the week “and provide insight into the metrics by answering those requests for the entire group in written format.”

On Wednesday, in response to a question from Gabrielle about the Health Department’s failure to provide the information, Menefee said the responses would come before the week’s end.

Gabrielle’s story alleging the Health Department was refusing to release the information ran Thursday. On Friday, Donila and the Health Department each sent out a nine-page document with the epidemiologists’ responses to questions from Gabrielle and other reporters. (The Compass article based on the responses is here.)

Donila said Gabrielle was aware the answers to his questions would be provided on Friday but the News Sentinel posted the story on Thursday alleging the Health Department refused to answer the questions anyway. 

“He was told over and over again the information would come out on Friday,” Donila said. “He wrote that we refused (to answer the questions). We didn’t.

“While Vincent Gabrielle was knowingly writing an erroneous, factually incorrect story, our hard-working Health Department was actually busy trying to get his and other media questions answered,” he continued. “Gabrielle apparently thinks that because he supposedly has a degree in immunology, that makes him an epidemiologist. It doesn’t.”

Christopher and Gabrielle defended the decision to publish the story on Thursday, saying the Health Department has frequently promised to provide information about the coronavirus response only to not follow through. 

Further, Christopher said the responses sent to the media on Friday were inadequate. “What they sent out on Friday didn’t answer the questions,” he said.

Donila also said Gabrielle had been “disparaging toward Health Department workers and the public relations people.”

Christopher said that it’s pretty tough to badger public officials during a lockdown when direct personal contact is all but impossible, and that public servants need to have thick skins. He and Gabrielle said the county had not approached the paper with concerns about Gabrielle’s reporting.

“If they think it’s got errors, I’d be happy to go over it with the Health Department and correct the record if they’re right,” Gabrielle said.

Christopher dismissed Donila’s allegations about Gabrielle’s reporting as false. “Frankly, that comment from Donila is a slander designed to deflect from reporting what the county is doing during a health crisis,” he said.

Barred No More

Harmon said Donila’s claim about “unprofessional and inaccurate” reporting was vague. “I saw nothing in the relevant articles that validated such a charge,” he said. “It looks more like a case of Knox County being caught with a slow response to data questions and blaming those who ask.  Or it could be a case of different definitions of what counts as an adequate response.”

Martinez wondered whether the county was engaging in “revisionist history” and raised the possibility that Gabrielle’s reporting prompted the release of the information. 

“If they truly told Gabrielle that the information would be coming Friday and he jumped the gun with a story saying they were withholding information, that’s sloppy, unethical reporting,” Martinez said. “If there was some confusion on both parts as to whether the information was forthcoming, then I would say a clarification would be in order by the newspaper.”

Harmon and Martinez agreed that complaining to the editor would have been more appropriate than blocking Gabrielle’s access to the news conference.

“Regardless of the reporting, Donila’s banning of Gabrielle from the press conference violated the First Amendment’s freedom of the press,” Martinez said.

Donila said that Gabrielle would be allowed into Monday’s Health Department media briefing and neither he nor other reporters would be barred in the future.