Reporters on the Record: Covering the Capitol During COVID (Part II)

READ: Reporters on the Record: Covering the Capitol During COVID (Part I)

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has made a profound mark on the way journalists cover the governor and state legislature. In this second installment—posted as the General Assembly wraps up its second special session of the COVID-19 era—we focus on what it’s like for the members of the State Capitol Press Corps to cover the legislature—which prematurely ended the 2020 legislative session in March and decamped the Capitol.

The legislature has returned twice for limited special sessions. In July, in the midst of a national awakening over racial injustice, the legislature narrowly passed a very controversial police reform law, and passed bills altering the state’s voting procedures, insurance coverage for tele-health, and insulin cost control.

This week—triggered by the response of the state’s two largest electric utility companies to the widespread power outages caused by Tropical Storm Isaias in August—the legislature passed new performance standards and storm-response requirements for electric, gas and water utilities. Other bills on the docket included changes to how absentee ballots are counted, some judicial nominations, a school construction bonding package and changes to a law regulating the sale of contaminated properties.

Under the traditional legislative process, bills are introduced, have public hearings, are voted on in committee and then make it to final action on the House and Senate floor. Health concerns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, drastically altered the ways lawmakers operated.

In general, Connecticut’s state legislators are an open, chatty lot, providing fairly open access to the journalists who cover them. The State Capitol Press Corps has its own room overlooking the Capitol’s fourth floor, and reporters have desks reserved for them in the House and Senate chambers.

But when the 151-member House met in July and on September 30th, only a handful of lawmakers were in the chamber, the media’s desks were inaccessible and most of the House members were forced to watch the session and cast their votes from their offices in the Legislative Office Building (LOB). If they wanted to speak, they had to notify the Speaker of the House remotely and make the 10-minute walk from their LOB offices to the House floor.

The 36-member Senate had its own COVID-19 debate procedures, switching out name plates and sanitized microphones at a few designated desks where Senators took their turns speaking. They voted in small groups from their own desks in the Senate Chamber.

What was it like to cover the House and Senate in a Capitol normally full of energetic lawmakers, their staffs, lobbyists, other advocates and the public? Once again, we thank the three journalists who shared their insights on covering the Capitol during COVID-19:

  • Jodi Latina has spent time as a reporter, an elected official, a legislative staffer and chief of staff to New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart. She is currently in her second stint at News 8. As their Political Correspondent, Jodi covers policy and political stories coming out of the State Capitol, including major state and federal elections.
  • Christine Stuart has been editor of CTNewsJunkie.com since 2006, after nearly four years as a reporter at the Journal Inquirer in Manchester. Prior to that, she covered education and transportation issues at the State Capitol for the Hartford Advocate. In April 2020, Stuart joined NBC Connecticut as a political reporter, and appears on the station’s Face the Facts Sunday news program.
  • Christopher Keating has been the Hartford Courant’s Capitol Bureau Chief for 21 of the past 23 years, covering the past five governors from Lowell Weicker to Ned Lamont. After graduating from Fordham and Columbia, he worked for the Greenwich Time, covering politics and polo. He was named four times on The Washington Post’s list of top Connecticut political reporters.

With the Capitol and Legislative Office Building closed to the public, and House members voting from their offices in the LOB, what was it like to cover the police reform bill—one of the most provocative and closely followed pieces of legislation in recent years?

Keating: “It was a little weird. The July session started with a 10 a.m. ‘Back the Blue’ rally with hundreds of law enforcement members and supporters, rolling into 21 hours of debate in the House and 18 hours in the Senate the following day. And while the debate was passionate, it felt a bit antiseptic. The hurly-burly of Connecticut’s lawmaking process was gone. The typically crowded hallways were empty, and a House chamber that seats 151 members only held about 10 at a time.”

Latina: “Normally, there are many people from staffers to lobbyists and advocates trying to get their lawmaker or group in front of journalists to tell their story.

“This was not as ‘in your face.’ The leaders of the party caucuses and chairs of the relevant committees were available, and the press directors were on speed dial, and there were very few uncontrolled ‘gaggles’ where camera people and reporters jockeyed for position.

Therefore, Latina said, it was “extremely important” to cover the rally and the opposing demonstrators.

“We often talk about putting a face on a story to help viewers understand very complex issues. The protests around were full of diverse views and emotion that truly told the story.

Stuart: “It wasn’t difficult for the media to cover the debate, but it was difficult for lawmakers to be sequestered to their offices watching it on TV. The sense of comradery was missing.”

Transparency suffered, as well, Stuart noted.

“The lawmaking process is, by nature, interactive and features the give-and-take of persuasion and negotiation that often takes place in the public eye. The ability to sway votes was not transparent and it was hard for lobbyists to communicate with lawmakers. Most likely all of that happened through electronic communication.”

Do you think these new procedures will linger into the January 2021 convening of the next regular legislative session?

Latina: “Absolutely. However, debating in both chambers was very orchestrated. Several House lawmakers confided in me that they wanted the choice to go into the chamber to vote in the traditional sense, but were told to stay in their offices.

“This could be the course of action until the pandemic is ‘under control,’ whatever shape that takes. If I was a member of the public, or a lobbyist I might feel shut out of the process. Public listening sessions over Zoom and emailing testimony are not the same as an in person face-to-face conversation.”

Stuart: “The 2021 regular legislative session is around the corner. They really need to figure out how to return safely to the building or fully function remotely. Other legislatures have figured it out.

“Connecticut has been really slow to legislate anything during the pandemic, beyond special sessions, video forums that substitute for public hearings and other ways of enacting laws that will prove difficult to scale up in a regular session.”

Keating: “Legislative leaders should be careful not to institute an artificial layer between lawmakers and the press. We all use the legislature’s online tools to access bills and amendments, but until COVID, every time the P.A. system announced a House or Senate roll call vote, I knew I could find members filing in and out of the chambers to talk to. That’s where you get the story behind the story, and it just doesn’t happen when it’s done like this.”

If you could make one change to the way that COVID-19 has altered your coverage of state government, what would it be?

Stuart: “As I mentioned before, journalists figured out how to get information in new and different ways, and we’ve adjusted how we gather the news. I think the hardest thing about COVID is trying to find how to adjust our work and home balance. How do you educate your child while asking the governor a question and sending a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Health all at the same time?”

Latina: “I can say it three letters: C.T.N.—the Connecticut Network. CT-N had its funding cut a few years back—but it has been a Godsend to both news outlets and the public. CT-N is essential and should be properly funded. Many times when we can’t have a camera at an event, CT-N is there and we are able to tap into their footage. They have become a major public service resource that is priceless in covering government during these strange times.”

Keating: “I’d love to have everyone back here as soon as it’s safe to do so. I’m not a huge fan of the way the special sessions were held, but we all understand the valid health reasons not to do so right now. We just get better information in person. But you play the game with the cards you’re dealt. When you have 47 cards, you play with 47 cards, and that’s what we’ll have to do.”

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