ARRESTING DEVELOPMENTS: Don’t blame reporters for doing their jobs - or try to “protect” them when they do

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

This was not a good week to be a member of the working press.  As a longtime member of that press, I’m not complaining – just stating fact.

If you were covering the sex abuse scandal at Penn State for a local TV station, you had your live truck overturned by a mob angry at the firing of Joe Paterno.  (Note to colleges: never dismiss a popular coach late at night, after your student body has already kicked back with a few beers.) 

If you were covering the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York’s Zuccotti Park, you might have found yourselves in handcuffs, rounded up right along with the protesters. 

A student journalist is among those taken into custody by New York police as Zuccotti Park is emptied of Occupy Wall Street protesters.   Photo by College Media Matters.
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student journalist is among those taken into custody by New York police as Zuccotti Park is emptied of Occupy Wall Street protesters.  
Photo by College Media Matters.

Danger is part of the job description when you’re a reporter – whether you are in Afghanistan or Brooklyn.  I’ve never been shot at or had my live truck overturned, but I have been pelted with rocks, bottles, flying glass, even sod from the infield at the old Shea Stadium.  No pun intended, but those risks come with the turf. 

But arrested?  For doing your job?  Maybe in North Korea.  But in the United States of America, that’s supposed to happen to gangsters and drug dealers, not reporters. 

If you look at the working press credential issued by the Police Department of the City of New York, you will see that the bearer “is entitled to cross police and fire lines” when covering a news event.  It also notes that the bearer “assumes all risk in case of accident.”  

“Assuming all risk in case of accident” puts a responsibility on reporters to consider their own safety when covering a story.  That’s not just to preserve life and limb, however.  It’s to keep from inadvertently becoming - by virtue of “accident” - part of the news event you are trying to cover.

That’s why when New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said reporters were blocked from Zuccotti Park “for their own safety,” it was at odds with the rules - not just the rules on the press card, but the longstanding rules of engagement between press and law enforcement in New York. 

Journalist groups such as the Deadline Club (www.deadlineclub.org), on whose board I serve, were swift in condemning this gap between official policy and the on-the-ground reality.  Just as an angry crowd is wrong to vandalize a live truck trying to cover a news event, so are law enforcers stepping over the line when they round up reporters covering a story.  In both cases, members of the press are just trying to do what they were sent out to do.

The arrests of several media representatives were subsequently voided.   They never should have been made in the first place. 

I have reported in New York for a long time, and have always had a good working relationship with law enforcement.  We respect each other’s boundaries.  That is as it ought to be.  The events in Zuccotti Park are way out of sync with my own experience.  Let’s hope they’re an aberration.