Saturday, September 13, 2008

Musings: Shades of Gray

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.”


Anonymous said...

"Is it trespassing for a reporter to go where something is happening in order to see what’s going on and question those involved?"

Of course it is, if its on private property and the property owner does not want you there. Reporters cannot simply walk onto your property without your permission, even if they think it's necessary to "get the story."

Anonymous said...

Andy's use of "troll" to describe anyone who disagrees with his viewpoint is both tiresome and bothersome.

Tiresome because he cannot offer a better defense and bothersome because the ad hom attack allows him (and you when you repeat the slur) to avoid addressing the issue while acting high and mighty. Funny how champions of free speech seem so unable to actually deal with it in the real world. This "troll" didn't call names or pick a meaningless fight. He/she just expressed a RW authoritarian opinion. Laughter should be enough of a defense.

Freedom of speech needs to be vigorously defended. Our current govt is slowly but surely trying to drive out any opposition. We should all be concerned and pushing back.

However, it does not mean the "press" and the pseudo-press have unlimited rights. Arresting reporters in a public place should be fought vigorously. Libelous language on a blog, not so sure.

Anonymous said...

The police can't come onto private property without a warrant, unless they're invited or they have a darn good suspicion there's a crime going on there. That's pretty fundamental.

Joan Conrow said...

While I agree that those with differing opinions should not be labeled "trolls," in this case the person making the comment chose that moniker as his/her Google identity.

awolgov said...

"Katy Rose wrote: ..Is this more valuable to society in the long run than shutting down effective journalism in order to pursue a few lawbreakers?.."

From what I gathered, the protesters did not believe they were lawbreaking and they have not been convicted of ʻlawbreakingʻ have they?

Just a reminder that sometimes we can get too caught up in our ʻwordsʻ and ʻwordingʻ just for the sake of ʻwordingʻ.

Anonymous said...

In the part you quote, the troll doesn't assert that reporters should cooperate with police to apprehend criminals. It says reporters can say no and refuse to talk or they can cooperate. Nothing in the quote indicates what the troll thinks the reporter should do.

Anonymous said...

The shield law protects legit journalists - not every tom, dick and mary blogger or "citizen journalist" - from prosecution for not revealing sources. Journalists can reveal if they so's not like they are priests.

The law does not protect against revealing what they saw at any scene, should they be legally called upon. Failure to divulge any info not directly connected with specific sources for articles could be considered contempt of court.

Reporters can be kept behind police lines. Similarly, behind "no tresspass" signs.

Police can cross no tresspass signs for "probable cause" or if any signs of illegal activity are in plain sight.

Reporters cannot without risking civil action.

I do not believe that journalistic freedom trumps arresting or convicting someone for a felony.

That's the way it should be.

Anonymous said...


An Internet troll, or simply troll in Internet slang, is someone who posts controversial and irrelevant or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum or chat room, with the intention of provoking other users into an emotional response[1] or to generally disrupt normal on-topic discussion.[2]

“An ad hom attack” on “anonymous” - Andy must be in stitches.

Anonymous said...

The police were called by the landowners rep. to remove the concerned citizens from his property so construction work could continue.
Anyone on the property not invited or contracted by the owner was trespassing.
Police are not required to follow a script designed by the trespassers.

Larry said...

In the case of the protests outside the RNC, the police have a $10 million insurance policy that says they can do whatever they like. So what if it's unConstitutional. They just try to get a conviction (say, of the journalists arrested). Maybe they'll luck out. If not, and even if the city is sued, their legal liability is paid for.

So what do they care about the Constitution or Bill or Rights or in fact anything? It's a license to arrest.

Since any individual policeperson is operating "under color of the law" I don't think they have any individual liability either.

Anonymous said...

Larry Said: "the police have a $10 million insurance policy that says they can do whatever they like."

Perhaps the protesters were also insured to do whatever they like.

No need for any more laws, just get yourself some of that "do anything you like insurance".

Anonymous said...

"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."

The right and duty of the police to access property under certain conditions is established by statue. Journalists do not anything resembling those rights & duties. Property owners are well within their legal rights to protect their property against the unwanted entry of journalists. Not necessarily so for the police.

Anonymous said...

I think "Journalist" should be a licensed profession. As part of earning that license, full or significant, continuing part-time employment with a recognized media outlet should be required. Passing a test showing, amnong other things, that the applicant knows the laws pertinent to the profession should also be required, including an unbiasd position for all articles short of op/ed pieces.

Continuing education credits should also be required.

Only licensed Journalists would come under shield law protection.

Katy said...

nunya - I'm not demeaning anyone at the Naue site when I use the term "lawbreaker." The broken law in question is intended to protect "private property" at the expense of any other community value, so if one breaks that law to exercise a community value, such as defending a burial site, then in my opinion they are doing something good.

As I'm sure you agree, defending that site is a responsibility, and ethically supercedes western property law.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't agree with that at all.

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