Deep reflection:  The blogger with WXIA photog Richard Crabbe

Deep reflection: The blogger with WXIA photog Richard Crabbe

The story was odd and therefore appealing.  Faculty at the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism were “feuding” with UGA’s public affairs department, according to a headline Tuesday in the Red and Black.  At issue:  Camera access to the Miller Student Learning Center, a busy building with a popular coffee shop.  J-school students liked to use the coffee shop for video projects.  The PR department was now insisting that students request permission before shooting video and still photos there.

At its core, the issue was pretty minor.  Numerous public buildings — county and federal courthouses come to mind — require advance permission before shooting.  Federal courthouses take the extra step of confiscating camera phones from every soul who traverses their metal detectors.  US Marshalls like to arbitrarily and unreasonably shoosh camera crews away from public sidewalks surrounding the Richard B. Russell and Sam Nunn federal buildings in downtown Atlanta.

The news media mostly rolls over and plays dead in the face of such restrictions.  The fact that the Grady School faculty were willing to ask the Attorney General to issue an opinion over camera access to the Miller center was refreshing.

When I pitched the story Tuesday, the newsroom brass at WXIA bought it.  This provided an opportunity to provide on-air the kind of ponderous media analysis with which readers of this site have become familiar.

So much for opportunity.

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The problem is this:  The public supports the first amendment in the abstract.  But they think the news media are obnoxious and self-serving.  This story could have been a thoughtful look at ever-increasing media restrictions.  It could have looked at the fact that almost every student in the MLC possesses a camera phone (the use of which technically requires advance permission, a laughable notion).

It could have also looked at a low-key effort to preserve the reasonable expectation of privacy that students (and workers at a coffee shop) might hope to have in a media-saturated world.

As UGA spokesman Pete Konenkamp said:  Everybody who has requested permission to shoot video in the MLC has received permission.

So why make student journalists (and the rest of us) jump through that hoop?

Contrarily, what’s wrong with insisting on the courtesy of a heads-up?

That story would have taken four or five minutes to tell.  When finished, it probably would have merely reinforced the audience’s notion that the news media is pushy and obnoxious.

So we took the shortcut.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

27 thoughts on “Decorum

  1. Alan Hand

    Kudos to you Doug, now you should do a story as you mentioned about the eroding freedoms of the real press!

  2. tvb

    Genteel? Seriously? Mr. Rogers was genteel; of course, his audience was made up of 4 and 5 year olds.

    What if that facility should become the scene of a crime? Will Mister Gentility still be requesting genteel coverage? I know a couple of small time cops here in rural Western NJ he can have coffee with while discussing ways to keep journalists off the public sidewalks too.

  3. Randy Travis

    As a Grady grad I’m confident the J School’s argument to the AG will be carefully crafted. Otherwise, it would be a pity if the AG “clarification” winds up making it even harder for us to get photographers into public buildings.

  4. Consultant

    I hope the school goes ahead with the request to the AG regardless of what UGA rules. It is something TV stations should have done long ago to set precedent in other public venues, such as MARTA, that feel the media should ask for permission to be in public areas.

  5. CB Hackworth

    Very interesting. I never actually thought of buildings on a university campus as being “public” in the same way as, say, a courthouse or city hall.

    For very obvious reasons, you sure can’t just walk into a public high school or elementary school (with or without a camera) these days — at least not without going through the central office and getting permission.

    In the aftermath of Columbine and Virgina Tech (although, admittedly, those two examples both involved students and not outsiders), I do wonder if greater security measures should be in place in campuses.

    Also, it would have been interesting to see what happened if you’d done the story without asking permission.

  6. newzfinland

    There goes UGA again, creating rules ad hoc simply to suit their own purposes on a given day. No real reasoning to back any of it up. Nice to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Well done, Doug. You haven’t lost a step.

  7. tvb

    CB – high schools are populated by minors. The law looks at minors differently when it comes to privacy rights.

    Unless the university can claim a national security reason (i.e. I took my kids to the US Mint in Philly yesterday and they asked if we had any cameras besides what was on our phones due to unspecified national security reasons – counterfeiting risk?), it’s generally considered public property if your tax dollars paid for it. Same goes for taxpayer funded documents and other media – fair use laws generally don’t apply because it belongs to US taxpayers.

    If the GA AG ends up agreeing with Mr. Gentility, I do hope one of the news organizations will pony up the resources to appeal it. It has the potential of setting really bad precedents. Next thing you know, you won’t be able to take a camera into the statehouse.

  8. CB Hackworth

    I can remember getting into arguments with security guards at the Fulton County “Taj Mahal” when we’d enter the building with a TV camera and they’d try to insist on knowing where we were going so they could call the P.R. department. We used to tell them to have us arrested and walk past them. I’m not sure if that would fly today or not. (Oh, and back then, since this was before the courthouse shootings, you could just go across the street and enter through the courthouse, then walk across to the administration building through the skybridge anyway).

    So, it’s not that I’ve never argued for public access before.

    But, I think, times have changed. The world is a more dangerous place and the so-called legitimate media increasingly are serving the pocketbooks of their corporate owners over the interests of the public they claim to represent. Most viewers don’t trust or believe you anymore — especially when they see ambush video and hidden cameras used indiscriminately.

    I am not indicting every single one of you, believe me — but if broadcast reporters and photographers do not start behaving more responsibly, you can not possibly hope for people to care whether you are banned from buildings.

    College buildings? I am open to hearing the arguments on both sides…

    In Washington D.C., a city full of almost nothing but public buildings and public servants, reporters and photographers don’t go anywhere they want and do anything they want. They have to have credentials and they have to have permission. Every spot of grass in D.C. is considered U.S. Park land and it is regulated as such. The result is that Congressmen are able to walk down the street without being ambushed like Shirley Franklin and the media behaves in a more socially acceptable manner in public. Reporters still report whatever they want to and the Washington Press Corps seems to work just fine.

    I really think discretion is the better part of valor here. I have no idea how the Attorney General will rule, but I think the J-school folks would have done us a favor by leaving the whole thing alone. The more obnoxious and in-your-face that the professional media become, the faster they are going to lose First Amendment freedoms.

    Because, well, the public hates you.

  9. CB Hackworth

    An additional thought…

    I could be mistaken, of course — you all know I am sometimes — but I don’t believe there is a law that differentiates what is or isn’t a public building based on the age of its occupants. On that basis, I’d submit the J-school profs could make the same argument about open access to elementary or high schools. And, for that matter, if TV folk can walk in any time they want, why not child molesters?

    I wandered into the UGA campus not too long ago with a TV camera and didn’t think much bout it. But, now, you guys have got me wondering about the whole issue.

    Very thought provoking, Doug.

  10. live apt fire Post author

    My impression is that UGA simply wants to be able to give the building supervisors a heads-up if a camera crew wants to shoot there. I’ve never presumed to shoot inside any college building without requesting some type of prior permission. Like Randy, I think there’s a real risk in involving the AG. Those folks ought to resolve this without seeking his help.

    I can see where one could argue that college students in quasi-libraries and such would have what lawyers would call an “expectation of privacy,” even if the building is public. That same expectation exists inside of ambulances, and through windows to homes. Just because it’s in a public place, and you can see it from a public place, doesn’t mean you can put it on TV.

    Public elementary schools are in the same category as public hospitals, or police stations, I would think. Because of the nature of the work or the clientele, public access is restricted.

    I’m with Alan– the real story is about the knuckleheads who overstep their authority restricting access outside courthouses, on MARTA etc.– all in the name of “security.” Pffft.

  11. tvb

    Is there an expectation of privacy when viewed from public property? It’s not what I learned in media ethics and law 101. It may be slimy but if you want privacy in your home, you close your curtains. Or you don’t in some instances:

    Do those hotel guests have an expectation of privacy if they choose to leave their curtains open?

    Jails, hospitals, schools with minors are all populated with a captive audience (no pun intended) and those folks can’t really run away from a camera if they want to. That’s not the case with college students in a public university – they don’t want to be on teevee, they can turn around and leave. Is it really any different than encountering a camera crew on the street? You have a choice of either walking in the line of sight of the camera or not.

    1. live apt fire Post author

      Last time I talked with a communications-type attorney, she gave the examples of the house and the ambulance as types of video that you cannot broadcast even if shot from a public place. She said that TV stations had lost lawsuits with those sets of facts.

      For example, if shooting a home that’s an active crime scene, and if a resident is still inside with police (and let’s say the resident is not a suspect in the crime): The door opens, and the resident is visible from the street, but is still inside the home. Photog gets a clear shot of the resident with a telephoto lens — that’s the kind of stuff I was told to avoid broadcasting.

      It surprised me. And I’m no lawyer, so take it for what it’s worth.

      1. CB Hackworth

        Doug, your information is probably more current than mine below — but that just goes to show you how times (and public opinion) have changed and will continue to change.

        We were always told that it was legal to shoot ANYTHING you can see from a public street, even into the open doorway of a home… however, you are probably correct that juries these days are not sympathetic to that kind of thing. I think if a media outlet acutally finds itself going to trial, it stands a very good chance of losing at that level. MAYBE an appellate court will reverse, but regular everyday folks will stick it to you.

  12. CB Hackworth

    You are correct, tvb… if you can take a picture of something from a public place, such as a street (unless that street is in Washington, D.C.), then you can most likely publish it… even if you are looking into someone’s house.

    Hotel guests who leave their curtains open have no reasonable expectation of privacy.

    What I’m saying, and will say again, is that members of the media need to be very mindful that these things, while technically legal, are nevertheless invasive and disturbing. They should be done only in extreme, justifiable instances. Unfortunately, as far as the public is concerned, you’re now lumped in with TMZ, Perez Hilton and everybody else in the world with a camcorder. So, we do see ugly violations and the people become more and more hostile to First Amendment freedoms.

    I think that is a separate issue from whether schools (and I see no legal difference between an elementary school, high school or university) are in fact public buildings. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a court somewhere rules against the media on that one. And, if that happens, it will be a self-inflicted injury.

  13. arky

    CB, I’ve seen plenty of file film from the Ron Burgandy era of gang-bang press scrums, and TV photographers with their 16mm cameras literally a couple of feet from an emerging dead body being dragged out of a murder scene, following it all the way into the coroner’s van. Not to mention the close-up footage taken of the bloody presidential limousine seat at Parkland Hospital even as President Kennedy was drawing his final breath inside… heck, even the breathless radio coverage of the Lindbergh baby trial. Please spare us tales of how genteel the press used to be.

    Also, it’s not accurate to say that you have to ask permission to shoot anywhere in DC. A LOT of places, yes, but not everywhere. I recall a Cox reporter ambushing Cynthia McKinney on the steps of the Capitol after her security incident.

    As far as shooting into a house is concerned, my understanding jibes with Doug’s. It’s all about a reasonable expectation. For example, if you have a huge picture window with no curtain or leave your front door wide open, it shouldn’t be a surprise that someone could shoot in there. However, if there’s only a small opening, and you’re using a high-powered lens to see inside, that’s a no-no. Similarly, it’s probably legally permissible to shoot through a chain-link fence into a backyard that’s easily visible from the street. However, it’s not permissible to use a tall ladder to be able to shoot over the top of a solid wood fence into a backyard, even if your ladder is on a public sidewalk.

  14. tvb

    Similarly, it’s probably legally permissible to shoot through a chain-link fence into a backyard that’s easily visible from the street. However, it’s not permissible to use a tall ladder to be able to shoot over the top of a solid wood fence into a backyard, even if your ladder is on a public sidewalk.

    I think this may be a question for Google Earth and Street View folks!

  15. CB Hackworth

    I came along after Ron Burgandy, and have really only worked for TV stations in Atlanta, and I don’t claim we’ve always done everything right here. In fact, the only reason we stopped airing shots of draped bodies on gurneys was the overwhelmingly negative feedback from focus groups — so, it’s not as if conscience dictates all of these decisions. However, in my experience, I’ve known a lot of fine reporters in this town who did manage to do their job in an ethical way. And, if you do not think things have changed for the worse in the last three years or so, then I’m afraid we have to agree to disagree.

    You seem to know more about Washington than I do, so I will defer to you on the specifics. In general, Congress has rigged the city to protect themselves from reporters and ambushes. You can lose your press credentials, and even be arrested, for shooting without permission in most places or failing to follow the “rules.”

    As for not using a tall ladder, etc., how do you think the National Enquirer gets naked pictures of movie stars laying around topless in their backyards?

    I think it would be instructive to find out what the law actually is on this point. Maybe someone at IRE could give us clarification…

  16. arky

    There was some celebrity a few years ago… maybe it was Jennifer Aniston… who sued a tabloid for taking a picture of her on a private beach from a very long distance away using a very powerful lens. It also gets a little hairy when you get pictures of someone’s private property from another piece of private property where you have permission to be shooting… that’s usually not okay either.

    Of course, these questions are much like the question of “fair use.” Ultimately only two things matter: What is someone willing to sue you over, and how much leeway will a judge or jury give you? Everything else is just philosophy for law professors (and us) to chew over. 🙂

  17. tvb

    Focus groups – the beginning of the downfall of teevee news. Pay a consultant a billion or so dollars to tell you, “Just ask the audience”. If teevee news relied upon focus groups in the 1960s, we would never have learned about Woodstock and the Vietnam War would still be going on.

    Focus groups are good for thinking through things like graphics. Put them into an editorial position and you may as well turn in your credentials. In fact, I think WGCL did the “let’s let the audience tell us what to do” several years ago. They called it “Clear News”: I called it “Quaalude News” at the time. It failed.

    The public may tell you they don’t like to look in people’s windows, but they sure do watch when you do it. And damn near everyone slows down to look at a car wreck.

  18. arky

    “If teevee news relied upon focus groups in the 1960s, we would never have learned about Woodstock and the Vietnam War would still be going on.”

    Actually, most of the initial coverage of Woodstock was decidedly negative because the media was controlled by old fogies. It was only after they got audience complaints about the negativism that the tide started turning. And it was only after baby boomers became The Establishment that Woodstock was universally regarded as some sort of transcendent event. (Did you notice how, during the recent 40th anniversary, nearly all of the file footage you saw on TV came not from actual news coverage, but from the sympathetic concert documentary?)

    So I guess it’s not always a bad idea to listen to the audience, as long as you don’t abandon your own judgment and common sense in the process. (I could say quite a bit on the Vietnam point, too, but I’ll save that for another argument 🙂 )


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