As fires ravage West, tensions between media and authorities rise

As fires ravage West, tensions between media and authorities rise

20 June 2012

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 USA -LAS VEGAS — With forest fires burning in several Western states, tempers have flared between officials and reporters covering the blazes. In one Nevada incident, a news photographer was tackled to the ground for allegedly impersonating a firefighter.

Tim Dunn, photo editor of the Reno Gazette-Journal, was detained in handcuffs Monday after a disagreement with Washoe County deputies trying to control a grass fire that destroyed two homes.

Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Assn., told the Los Angeles Times that Dunn was complying with a deputy’s directions to move when he was forced to the ground and his face pushed into some gravel.

Smith said he supports an official complaint that the newspaper plans to file with county officials. He called the incident a case of a uniformed officer who overreacted.

“Tim was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing,” Smith said. “The most preposterous part are the suggestions that he was impersonating an officer. Like other photographers, he’s had training on how to be safe in these situations. He was wearing the helmet and glasses he was supposed to have on. He was impersonating no one.”

Tension between media personnel and state and federal officials also seems to be arising along other fire lines in the West, the Associated Press reported.

Disagreements between news organizations and authorities are not unusual during emergencies. In many cases, journalists seeking to tell firefighters’ and victims’ stories face strict controls on the flow of information.

Reporters covering northern Colorado’s massive wildfire, for example, cannot enter areas that have been evacuated. The restriction is unusual even for that state, where local officials have extensive powers at fire scenes and journalists are usually kept miles from the flames.

Law enforcement holds the upper hand, said Kelly McBride, who studies journalism ethics, in an interview with the Associated Press.

“Most of the time public officials are eager to show they are upholding their duty, so they grant journalists some kind of access,” said McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education foundation. “But there’s nothing that says they have to grant journalists access.”

In Colorado, Larimer County sheriff’s officials have cited safety reasons and residents’ privacy in keeping reporters, TV camera crews and still photographers out of the High Park fire evacuation zone until residents see their homes first.

Officials have barred reporters from briefings in which residents are often given the bad news that their houses have burned down.

Rules for media access vary from state to state and even from wildfire to wildfire. In California, state law allows news organizations nearly unlimited access to fires. Other states leave the decisions up to the agency responsible for the land involved.

In Arizona, the incident commander in charge of the firefighting effort has the final say, and news personnel must have an escort.

Utah and Idaho have no laws restricting or guaranteeing access, but officials usually work with news organizations.

In Colorado, state law puts the county sheriff in charge of fires on state and private land in unincorporated areas if the fire exceeds the capacity of a single fire department, according to the AP.

In Nevada, Smith says, such run-ins will probably continue in the high-anxiety effort to bring the summer firers under control.

“These wildfires are pretty much a daily occurrence this time of year,” he said, calling the detainment of the Reno photographer a bad omen for run-ins to come.

“This was a veteran photographer. The deputy was trying to tell him where to be, how to do his job. The photographer questioned and it escalated. But to take down a 60-year-old photographer at a fire scene is simply outrageous.”

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