The growing moon shone like a ghost orb through thick layers of quilted clouds, then disappeared behind the mountains, leaving the world in blackness for a while before the sun rose in a fiery inferno of pink-orange that was quickly extinguished by gray.
I was looking up at the sky and realized it wasn’t just gray, but layers of color: varying shades of gray with white clouds floating above and beyond that, pale blue. It brought to mind discussions I’ve had lately with journalist friends about the growing gray areas in our profession.
Gone are the days of old, when you reported just the facts, the who, what, where, when and why, and any reporting biases were pretty evident. Now so many stories are interpretive, educational, even promotional of people and events deemed worthwhile because they serve the community, which of course opens the door to favorable coverage of corporations that are aiding the public, too.
Then there’s advocacy journalism, and blogging by mainstream media reporters, and journalists who move in their career between reporting and corporate PR and promotional work for nonprofits — all activities that further blur the old lines about what is acceptable behavior for a reporter, and what is not.
In navigating these shades of gray, it tends to come down to making personal decisions about what you feel good about putting your name on. Does it reflect the integrity you have worked to attain as a journalist?
And now we have the growing question of what reporters can legally do in covering the news, as we saw when some 20 journalists were arrested while reporting on street demonstrations at the Republican National Convention, and the Kauai police questioned me about covering a protest where three persons have since been arrested on trespassing charges.
That incident prompted an interesting exchange in the comments section of Andy Parx’s blog:
Katy Rose wrote: Do we want to feel collectively secure that our journalists - whose function is a real community asset -will not be intimidated away from covering controversial subjects?
I think that Andy has made the point that sources and subjects need to be confident that the journalist is not an arm of law enforcement - a journalist's ability to report accurately depends on that.
Is this more valuable to society in the long run than shutting down effective journalism in order to pursue a few lawbreakers? I would venture to say that most people believe that freedom of the press is a higher value.
“A troll” responded: First of all Katy, reporters can be guilty of trespass and if the police think Joan is guilty they have every right to arrest her, let alone ask her some questions.
Second, police can ask anyone questions they want to. Reporters can say no if they don't want to talk. And if they do want to cooperate and help police apprehend criminals, reporters can do that too. It's not unheard of.
Is it trespassing for a reporter to go where something is happening in order to see what’s going on and question those involved? I certainly don’t think so, any more than the police are trespassing when they also respond to check things out. I've never hesitated before to go where I needed to get the story. As to the troll’s assertion that reporters should cooperate with police to apprehend criminals, well, that’s certainly not a role that I’ve ever thought journalists should play, nor one I would like to see them move into.
Then there’s the issue of what happened at the RNC. As Democracy Now! producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous reported following his second arrest for covering protests at the RNC:
And I was speaking to the police. And he goes, you know, “Why didn’t you guys just disperse when we tell you to disperse, and this is not going to happen?” I told him, “You’ve been telling me to disperse since 5:00 p.m. And so, you know, there would be no press for four hours of this march. You know, we can’t—we’re just doing our job. We’re not going to disperse whenever you tell us to. We’re going to continue to do this.”
Does it constitute rioting if reporters fail to disperse upon police orders? I certainly don’t think so, because they need to be there to see what’s really going on. Otherwise, we’d have to rely solely upon the version of events presented by protestors and cops, and neither party has the same overview or impartiality as a reporter. Yet to my knowledge, charges have not been dropped against any of those reporters.
And this leads us to the bigger question: Do reporters only cover the so-called law-abiders, in order to avoid the risk of being treated like a criminal? I always thought we were supposed to move through all strata of society, never fully identifying with any particular one. That’s partly why I’ve always liked being a reporter. It suited me as the ultimate outsider. I like to think the role of a reporter is to be, as a Hawaiian friend phrased it, na kahuna kilo — the perfect observer.
As law enforcement agencies crack down heavily on protests, and the public resists the government’s efforts to limit First Amendment expression to so-called “free-speech zones” and citizens engage in more direct action because they’re frustrated by the dysfunctional workings of government and the courts, I hope to see this issue come to a head, rather than become another one of those journalistic gray areas.
We take our free press for granted, even as it’s come under increasing corporate control. But we could lose the last little vestiges of it if we start treating reporters like “criminals.”