RTDNA to Ferguson’s chief of police: Journalists need ‘full and fair access’

Police wearing riot gear stand at a post as they wait for a crowd to disperse Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. The FBI opened an investigation Monday into the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who police said was shot multiple times Saturday after being confronted by an officer in Ferguson. Authorities in Ferguson used tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse a large crowd Monday night that had gathered at the site of a burned-out convenience store damaged a night earlier, when many businesses in the area were looted. (AP Photo/Jeff Rober)

Police wearing riot gear stand at a post as they wait for a crowd to disperse Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. The FBI opened an investigation Monday into the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who police said was shot multiple times Saturday after being confronted by an officer in Ferguson. Authorities in Ferguson used tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse a large crowd Monday night that had gathered at the site of a burned-out convenience store damaged a night earlier, when many businesses in the area were looted. (AP Photo/Jeff Rober)

RTDNA

Radio Television Digital News Association’s Executive Director Mike Cavender wrote a letter to Ferguson, Missouri’s chief of police on Wednesday urging “Ferguson police to work with journalists.” Here’s part of that letter:

While our members and the journalism community as a whole understand your department’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of the residents of Ferguson during this time, we strongly object to the conduct of some of your officers, along with that of other law enforcement officials as it impacts journalists. This includes placing undue limits on media access to the affected portions of the community, along with the continuing reports of harassment and undue treatment of reporters, photographers and others involved on-scene, who are providing vital news coverage of the events as they unfold.

These volatile situations require cooperation of all parties engaged in the lawful performance of their respective duties. It is simply unacceptable if any journalists were specifically targeted by anti-riot measures, such as tear gas, rubber bullets or similar tactics. Any such actions would be in direct conflict with reasonable respect for the rights of all involved.

On Tuesday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s David Carson tweeted this:

The New York Times’ Julie Bosman tweeted this Monday:

The Riverfront Times’ Ray Downs tweeted this:

That night, KSDK’s Casey Nolan tweeted this:

And St. Louis Public Radio’s Alex Heuer later tweeted this, clarifying things a little:

On Tuesday, I spoke with Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Photographers Press Association, about how police should treat the media in these situations.

“The last time I looked, that area of the country still is in the United States and the United States Constitution applies there,” he said. “A part of the First Amendment protects the media in covering the news. That’s the whole point of a free press.”

It’s not absolute, he said, and subject to some reasonable restrictions.

“If the media is in a place that police deemed dangerous or interfering with operations, they could order them to move back or to a different location,” Osterreicher said.

But they can’t order the media to leave completely.

“That restricts far more speech and free press than is necessary to achieve a government purpose.”

The press doesn’t have the right to greater access than the public, he said, “but they certainly have no less right.”

For journalists in these situations, it’s a personal decision to stay and possibly be arrested. NPPA often works with the media in training them to know their rights, but that doesn’t matter, he said, “if the police don’t know or care what your rights are.”

Even if journalists are arrested, as they were when covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and those charges later get dropped, it has a chilling effect on the media.

“It’s just a matter of issuing these blatant blanket orders or working with media. Everyone there is looking for information. You can’t get information if you’re not there to observe it.”

Ideally, he said, newsrooms and police departments should have details worked out ahead of time.

“But on the other hand, I think the police have to realize that in a country such as ours, the media is going to be there.”

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