Knoxville reporter barred from COVID-19 briefing after critical story

Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Vincent Gabrielle was shut out of a COVID-19 daily press briefing after writing a story highlighting the city’s lack of data-sharing on its re-opening benchmarks.

Knox County’s communications director shut out a Knoxville News Sentinel reporter from the daily COVID-19 briefings on Friday, shortly after his story published about the county not sharing data behind its re-opening benchmarks.

The daily briefing is held through Zoom, and news reporters across the city have been given access to the meeting code. However, when news reporter Vincent Gabrielle tried to enter the press briefing where reporters could ask questions through a chat function, he was not allowed in.

When he texted the health department’s media line to ask if there was a technical problem, he was referred to Mike Donila, the county’s communications director.

County says reporter shut out of COVID-19 briefings because of his ‘constant false narrative’

Donila told the News Sentinel late Friday that he made the decision to bar Gabrielle because of “unprofessional behavior directed toward the Health Department and his inaccurate reporting that has been constantly riddled with half-truths, missing facts and and a constant false narrative.”

No examples or specific facts were offered, according to the News Sentinel story.

However, a story about Knox County’s lack of data-sharing around re-opening benchmarks had published online Thursday night on the Knoxville News Sentinel webpage (and in print on Friday).

The story, written by Gabrielle, examined the red light, yellow light and green light summary provided by the health department on its web page that summarized its assessment of data for re-opening decisions. (Everything is currently a green light).

The story included comments from experts noting the lack of clarity in the metrics and included a comparison with Nashville, that shares specific benchmark metrics.

Editor shares questions posed by news reporter

After his reporter was shut out of the press conference, Knoxville News Sentinel Editor Joel Christopher posted on twitter the questions that Gabrielle has posed to health department officials over the past week. They included:

  • Based on data made available by your department, it appears Knox County has not been hit as hard as other places. That would point to a success story that Knox County should be trumpeting, but it’s impossible to do that without knowing all the underlying data. Does the health department intend to tell that full story, undergirded by data, and if so, when and how?
  • You have said that you rely on multiple models when making decisions about Knox County, but you have not specified which models you are using. Please list the models you are using when making decisions about Knox County. Do these models calculate our effective transmission number? If so, please tell us what the effective transmission (R) is.
  • You’ve said in multiple news conferences you’ll base decisions on “data” but you have not provided specific metrics or benchmarks. What specific data, metrics and benchmarks will trigger a change in policy? If you are declining to provide those benchmarks, please explain why.
  • You have said you’re tracking COVID-like illness and clinical presentation of COVID. When are you going to make that information public?
  • What are the raw case numbers, the incidence and prevalence of COVID-like illness in the county?
  • The state and federal government have been tracking COVID-like illness in emergency rooms since at least February using the syndromic surveillance network. That’s also part of the county-level pandemic plan. Have you been tracking COVID-like illness with this system? If not, why?
  • The scientific process is constantly evolving, and includes uncertainty. What are some to the limitations of the information you’re using and how are you accounting for it in your decision-making?

Donila told the Knoxville News Sentinel that he would allow Gabrielle to attend Monday’s briefing, according to the News Sentinel story.

(UPDATE: Gabrielle told me that other Knoxville News Sentinel reporters tried to get in after him, and they were also denied entry. Finally, near the end of the press briefing, the KNS editor Joel Christopher was allowed entry, Gabrielle said.)

What do you think?