Wick Communications

Privacy in public

In journalism on 4 Mar 2011 at 9:42 am

What do you think of this?

Last month, a man named Chester Jackson was gunned down during an altercation outside a Sacramento, Calif., restaurant. Unfortunately, such events are all-too frequent. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 30,694 deaths by gunshot wound in the United States in 2006, the last year for which I could find such statistics.

Such shootings, while tragically common, are sure to bring out two types of people with very different emotions and motivations: those grieving the death of a loved one, and those covering the killing and grieving. The two groups mixed like oil and water in the days following Jackson’s death.

A pair of television reporters were accosted and assaulted as they arrived to shoot video outside the restaurant the next day. Grieving family and friends demanded privacy and said they didn’t appreciate vultures from the press interrupting them … or words to that effect.

Subsequent news coverage made me a little uncomfortable, primarily because it seemed to focus as much on the battery of reporters as on the death of a young man. It also made me think a bit about safety, reporting – and respect – at news scenes like this one.

In my opinion, you don’t have any expectation of privacy when you are on a city street. That is true even following the death of a family member. If you want privacy, go somewhere private…

That is not to say we shouldn’t show a great deal of respect for those who are hurting. The good news for us in the print and Web world is that we don’t have to show up at these things with a huge camera and a satellite truck. It’s always best to sidle over quietly and see whether the grieving family wants to talk. We know to be respectful, and if folks shrug us off, we know to take the hint. We don’t need “the shot.”

Before we get to feeling too smug about that, or set in our opinion that grieving people deserve their space, know that some of our very best journalism infringes on the privacy of our subjects. That intimacy creates drama and brings home the emotions of the stories we are trying to convey. If you simply leave everyone alone in their toughest moments — sports stars, the family of murder victims, defrocked priests, dethroned despots — your writing will suffer. Take a look at that poignant shot that goes with this post. It was taken by Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki at the scene of the same murder. He conveyed just how damaging such crimes are by pointing his lens at people in pain. (By the way, he seems to have accomplished that without intruding on a “private” moment.)

I really don’t recall seeing anything quite like this in our country, where most people understand the requirements of the First Amendment. I remember in my cop reporting days in south Florida, I used to make great theater out of wearing a beeper (consult history books, kids) and big ol’ walkie-talkie on my belt. That, combined with my shiny shoes and department store tie, pretty much marked me as a cop in the ‘hood. I used to pretend the accessories kept me safe at murder scenes late at night.

Of course, all this makes for excellent TV. And Fox 40 played it for all it’s worth… perhaps such coverage in the past led to the vitriolic reception at the scene in the first place.





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