Wick Communications

Can’t we all just get along?

In journalism on June 21, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Reno Gazette-Journal

There is nothing particularly new about a little dust-up in Reno, Nev., this week that left a photographer with minor injuries and the local Sheriff’s Office with some explaining to do. I thought I would mention it here anyway, along with some advice should you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

As you can read, Reno Gazette-Journal photo editor Tim Dunn was cited for obstruction after an altercation with police on Monday. He had been shooting a fire that destroyed a couple of homes. That is where his story diverges from the police account. He says he was just doing his job. Cops say they asked him to move farther away from the fire and, when he didn’t, he was cuffed and detained for about 30 minutes.

So what do we think? Here’s my take:

  • You have a job to do. Dunn is paid to bring home important news like the fire he was shooting. His duty to readers requires him to get close enough to the action to impress upon readers the magnitude of the fire.
  • You have to be safe. Under no circumstances should you put yourself at risk while covering a fire. Use good judgment and that might keep the authorities from pulling you away from the scene.
  • You have to obey a lawful order. If a cop tells you to stand behind the yellow police tape, you probably need to stand behind the yellow police tape. Now, police may tell you to do something that you don’t legally have to do. Which leads me to…
  • Know the law. In California, Penal Code 409.5 expressly allows credentialed media complete access to disaster scenes, riots and fires (though not to crime scenes.) Officials are to advise the media of the risk but may not preclude reporters from entering the scene. Rules in your state may not be as liberal. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Branzburg v. Hayes that “newsmen have no constitutional right of access to the scenes of crime or disaster when the general public is excluded.” A proper citation of the law may convince officials on the scene to let you do your job.
  • Be reasonable. Arguing with a cop who is preoccupied with a big problem is probably not going to get you anything but in trouble. Speak calmly. Try to seek a solution that works for both of you. And if you can’t, ask to speak to a supervisor. “Please” and “thank you” can go a long way in a tense situation.
  • Check in with your boss. If you have a problem with authorities at any scene, make a cell phone call to your editor or publisher. He or she may be a cooler head or have access to the police brass.
  • Finally, you don’t want to be the news. If you are the news, by definition, you can’t really cover it. If your skinned-up face is on the front page tomorrow, you will be answering questions rather than asking them. And that isn’t really the plan.

— Clay

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