It’s common knowledge that a good relationship between the media and a police department’s public information office is crucial to keeping the public informed. When things go south between journalists and a PD, the public’s right to know becomes collateral damage.
An article posted today in City Paper, Banned, On the Run, relates the tale of a local newspaper reporter who was literally frozen out of all communication with the Baltimore Police Department. According to the article, there was already bad blood between the Department and Baltimore Sun reporter, Justin Fentin, especially after “the department took steps to control its public image.”
But the last straw for the PD was “after the paper published the name of a police officer who had been shot several hours before the cops made the announcement themselves.” Even though Fentin wasn’t credited with the article, he had already antagonized Police Commissioner Anthony Batts months before by his criticism of the Commissioner and the police department on social media.
City Paper reporter Edward Ericson, Jr. wrote, “By then, Fentin was not always getting word of police events and public appearances by Batts. He complained privately and publicly via Twitter.”
Even after the shooting victim officer’s name was released to the media in March, the Department’s PIO refused to acknowledge Fentin during a press conference on April 16, 2014. The next day, the reporter was physically blocked from another press conference by the Commissioner’s “security detail.” The reporter took video of both, which he tweeted to his “15,000 followers.”
The newspaper’s management “came down on Fentin,” which led to the involvement of The Guild. The print journalists’ union stepped in and posted a notice in the paper’s newsroom entitled, “Social media challenges in the newsroom,” with the following memo:
The Guild is concerned that Sun journalists may face discipline for carrying out their job duties on social media in the absence of clear guidelines. Reporters who face push back and retaliation from government agencies or other sources that they cover should be confident that management will stand behind them. The Guild knows that a robust press, free of government interference, is essential to democracy and that the Sun is an important check on government power. If you are asked to meet with your supervisor regarding social media activity (or any actions), please ask for Guild representation.
The Sun’s crime and courts editor Andy Rosen tried to patch things up with the Baltimore Police Department to no avail – the Commissioner wanted a written apology before lifting the freeze on Fentin. But the paper refused.
Representatives from the newspaper and the police department made statements after the print version of the City Paper’s article was published yesterday, both claiming that they cooperate fully with each other.
Justin Fentin, however, is still persona non grata at the Baltimore Police Department.
Fentin’s behavior was a bit over the top, and somewhat unprofessional, as the paper’s management claimed. I’m just a blogger, but even I can see where the reporter pushed the envelope. I can understand the police department’s hesitance in bringing him back into the fold.
Even so, I do sympathize with his impatience in trying to get the information he needs for stories. Despite the fact that on April 11, 2014, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that bloggers are, in fact, media, I’m not always kept in the loop in North Miami Beach.
I have complained from time to time about the lack of information doled out by the NMB Police Department regarding violent crimes in our city. I am not alone in my assessment, as I’ve been told by “real” reporters that they’ve also been given the cold shoulder by the department’s PIO Major Kathy Katerman. Just a couple of weeks before the Appellate Court’s ruling, Major Katerman questioned why a “blogger” (that’d be me) was invited to attend a meeting of the South Floria Media Coalition at the North Miami Police Department in March. (For the record, I attended the April meeting at the Davie Police Department and no one questioned my presence. I also intend to go to the one being hosted by the Major and the NMBPD next week, where ironically, the topic will be social media.)
It also appears that the PIO’s directive, “no talking to the blogger,” has been taken seriously considering there have been several shootings in North Miami Beach recently that went under the radar. Even the “real” reporters have given up trying to get information.
Apparently this is a nationwide problem, so I’m not taking it personally. The City Paper article reported:
Public officials nationwide have always frozen out reporters who displeased them, but lately the bans seem to last longer—or forever—because many government officials no longer believe they need good press relations. As James Rosen wrote last July in the Columbia Journalism Review after two separate congressmen had put him in the deep freeze, “Many elected representatives no longer view talking with independent reporters as part of their duty in American democracy, but rather as a privilege to be granted or withdrawn as reward or punishment for coverage deemed favorable or unfavorable.”
We already see evidence of media blackout policies in Miami Beach under City Manager Jimmy Morales. We even saw it to a lesser degree in the Village of Biscayne Park when three of their top cops “were suspended for unknown reasons.” It’s already happened too frequently in North Miami Beach, as I’ve already documented on several occasions. I’m getting the sense that this is a growing and disturbing trend not only locally, but nationally as well.
Are there reporters and bloggers who are royal pains in the ass? Sure. Some of them may be reacting to the way they were treated in the first place by public information officials, but bad behavior and disrespect are not acceptable from either side. The key is mutual respect for each other, and for the public’s right to information.
Baltimore Police Spokesman Acting Captain J. Eric Kowalczyk said it best in his statement to City Paper:
The relationships and interactions between reporters and members of the Baltimore Police Department contribute to the overall ability to keep the public rightfully informed about their Police Department. The Baltimore Police Department continues to have a strong relationship with all of the media outlets in Baltimore and we remain committed to ensuring that every media outlet has as much access as is possible without violating law or compromising investigations.
“Spreading the Wealth”