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The number of ways news is gathered and reported has increased vastly since the heyday of big-city newspapers and major broadcast TV networks. What has not changed is the media’s willingness to go where the story is. This is not always safe; in fact, reporters have been injured and killed doing their job.
But is their job to get the news protected by the U.S. Constitution? Apparently, the general rule consistently applied by the courts in interpreting the First Amendment is that the media have the same right of access as the public; no more and no less. In the 1972 case Branz-burg v. Hayes, the U.S. Supreme Court said, “It has been generally held that the First Amendment does not guarantee the press a constitutional right of special access to information not available to the public generally.” The court further stated, “Newsmen have no constitutional right of access to the scenes of crime or disaster when the general public is excluded…”
California is one of only a few states with media-access laws. Two other states with codified access laws are Ohio and Virginia. These laws let the media venture beyond where the public is allowed to go at crime and disaster scenes, although they cannot interfere with responders or disturb potential evidence. In most other states, the media can be prevented from going places and doing things beyond what responders prevent the public from accessing. One main reason for denying access is safety.
The first responsibility of responders is to protect life. Historically, members of the media have chosen to give up that protection to cover a story. Therein lies the conundrum for responders. “Life safety first” is what the responders’ oath usually includes, but what do they do when people – i.e., the media – are willing to place themselves in harm’s way to get a story? Who is responsible for the media when they are in harm’s way? Is it responders? If reporters are given access and are injured, killed or need rescue, can responders be held liable for allowing the access in the first place? For states like California, Ohio and Virginia the solution was seemingly straightforward: Give the media access to crime and disaster scenes, but make certain they do so at their own risk, thereby removing safety as a mitigating factor for preventing access.
California has a large amount of wildlands and forests. Along with that comes fire, which is part of the natural environment. To cover fires that can at times grow into raging conflagrations, the media believe they need to go “beyond the tape” to record such drama as firefighters in action, property destruction and the aerial efforts of firefighting aircraft. It is natural for people who swear an oath to protect life and property to be concerned about the safety of the media.
Firefighters train regularly to safely fight wildland fires. The concern was how to provide safety training for the media, particularly in California, where the media sometimes arrive at the fire the same time as firefighters. For many years, fire departments would have media fire safety days at their headquarters or training facilities. I remember as a member of the media in the late 1980s attending such an event at the then-CDF (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) Academy in Ione. Media members participated in firefighting situations, with live fire, guided by the academy training staff.
When I became the CAL FIRE San Bernardino Unit information officer, I helped set up such safety events. It was a good way to get a story about CAL FIRE and fire safety on the air or in the newspapers, but it didn’t provide fire safety training for more than the reporters and camera persons who attended the events.