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Accessibility or agenda setting? Democrats holding frequent press briefings


By Andrew Doughman, Nevada News Bureau: A coffee shop across the street from the Legislature announces “let the games begin.”

With the Legislature in session for less than two weeks, Democratic legislators seem to be playing the game well.

They have called the press corps to briefings during three of the past four working days to showcase meetings or bills they’d like to advance.

This has helped them steer news coverage to the bills they’d like Nevadans to pay attention to, even though some of the journalists among the capitol press corps have neither attended the briefings nor written stories about the bills.

“We want to highlight a few bills,” said Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas at today’s press briefing where Assembly Democrats announced a school retrofit proposal and a bill related to trade. “We’d like to meet with you every week … We want to get some of our proposals out.”

He said the strategy has been effective so far, citing an example from last week when Democrats held a press conference for a jobs bill that was wellcovered in the press.

“It helps to draw attention to the issues that they want to keep raising before the public, so I don’t think it hurts them at all to keep doing that,” said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

Oceguera later said the Senate and Assembly Democrats plan to have weekly press briefings Monday and Tuesday afternoons.

On one hand, the conferences could allow legislators to help steer public debate, thereby setting the agenda for what is, and what is not, important. On the other hand, reporters are free to choose whether or not they should pursue the story offered to them at the press conference. It’s the old debate about what constitutes news and who should decide what news is.

Whether the answer is the politicians, the people or the press, frequent media conferences do allow the journalists easy access to lawmakers. The meetings promote government transparency.

“Speaking in general, I like the idea of the accessibility, and you can always ask a question that’s not related to the subject of the press conference,” said Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. “I’d say the more the merrier.”

The frequent press conferences also allow spin-off conversations between legislators and reporters to continue after the inevitable “last question” announcement signals the end of the formal media briefing.

“I often like press conferences more than press releases because I can’t talk back to press releases,” Ceppos said.

The Democratic strategy mirrors the policy next door at the Capitol building. Gov. Brian Sandoval sends his senior adviser, Dale Erquiaga, to take questions from the press every Monday.

“It’s a good way for the governor to communicate with the press as well as answer all the questions you all might have,” said Mary-Sarah Kinner, Sandoval’s press secretary.

Kinner helped arrange the Monday meeting time to fit reporters’ schedules.

Republicans at the Legislature are using a different strategy.

“We try to hold a press conference when we really have something to say,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, clarifying afterward that he didn’t mean Democrats have nothing to say.

“It’s just early,” he said. “It’s only day seven.”

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