Tag Archives: basic newsgathering skills

News Cameras Barred From RFK Jr. Event

By Tiger Haynes, Editor 

RFK Jr. speaking at Purdue University earlier this week. Although still photography was permitted, the news media was not allowed to take audio or video of his remarks.

RFK Jr. speaking at Purdue University earlier this week. Although still photography was permitted, the news media was not allowed to take audio or video of his remarks.

MEDIA COVERAGE RESTRICTED AT RFK JR. EVENT

While browsing the various news wires this week, I was somewhat taken aback to find precious little coverage of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Thursday speech at Purdue University. Then I found out why.

Turns out, the news media’s access to this event was severely restricted: no audio or video recordings allowed.

One of the local television channels, WLFI-TV, tried to cover Kennedy’s speech, but their cameras were turned away at the door. As pointed out in both the text of that station’s web site story, and by a seemingly annoyed anchorman on the evening news that night (watch the video here), “News Channel 18 was not allowed to capture video of his (Kennedy’s) presentation.” 

From what I gather so far, the news media were allowed inside the auditorium. Still photographers were allowed to snap a few flash-free pictures during the first three minutes of Kennedy’s speech. Journalists were allowed to take notes by hand. But they were not allowed to document and verify the accuracy of their quotes with an audio or video recording, thus rendering them unable to produce coverage of the event which meets current legal and industry standards.

That certainly explained why the only two articles written about Kennedy’s Purdue speech were riddled with inaccurate and indirect quotations.

As someone who has attended Mr. Kennedy’s speeches enough times to practically have his prepared remarks memorized by now, I spotted the misquotes right away. Before learning of the “no audio or video” policy at Kennedy’s Purdue event, I wondered why my fellow journalists were resorting to 1930s-era newsgathering methods (frantically scribbling on a notepad and hoping to hell they got it right) when more modern technology is readily available to help them do their jobs. 

Justin Mack of the Journal & Courier only used two direct quotes from Kennedy in his article, resorting to paraphrasing and comments from audience members to fill up the remaining column inches. 

In the Exponent, Purdue’s campus newspaper, staff reporter Nisha Deo wound up roughly paraphrasing the majority of Kennedy’s remarks — because the reporter apparently had no other choice.

This is not indicative of press laziness or negligence, but rather points to something much darker and far more troubling: a disturbing national trend towards restricting media access at public events.

DEPENDS ON WHAT YOUR DEFINITION OF “FREEDOM OF THE PRESS” IS

On college campuses, this trend has escalated in recent years to the point where most major universities now have policies on media access. These rules (disguised by the more friendly-sounding and legally nonbinding word “guidelines”) are published in campus policy memos and posted on the university’s websites so that journalists, faculty, staff and students can be familiar with them. While most of these “media guidelines” are just common-sense stuff that responsible journalists don’t have to be told (for example: don’t follow a professor into the bathroom with a camera rolling. Duh.), all this legalese plays fast and loose with the First Amendment and the right of a free press.

Recognizing that no public institution which recieves public funds has any legal right to restrict press access to their campuses, most of the guidelines set forth by universities are indeed reasonable. In general, most policies agree that the news media does not need permission to videotape on campus, except in areas not typically open to the public, such as dorms or classrooms. Most campus policies also convey the understanding that if a press release is issued regarding a specific event (such as Purdue’s press release for RFK Jr.’s appearance), the media does not need special approval to cover that event. (The press release itself is considered an invitation to do so, although some colleges require additional credentialing for specific events.)

Nonetheless, these “reasonable” rules are sometimes perverted and twisted to deny access to certain media organizations who might provide unfavorable coverage or reporters who may be known to ask tough questions, for example. In other words, the “media guidelines” set forth by a university can be used to bar members of the press for any number of arbitrary reasons. This would be clearly unconstitutional.

After doing a thorough search of Purdue University’s website, I found that Purdue (unlike the majority of American universities today) does not have an official policy regarding news media access to the campus. Or if they do have such a policy, it is not available on their website.

I did, however, find a news release put out by Purdue’s News Service in advance of a speech given by Colin Powell on campus in February, 2007. Powell’s appearance was sponsored by the Purdue College of Engineering, who also sponsored Mr. Kennedy’s recent speech as part of their annual National Engineers Week celebration. 

In that news release, the same media “guidelines” for Powell’s 2007 event appear to be exactly the same as those employed for Kennedy’s event this week. Although in that case, the university makes it clear that the media restrictions were at the personal request of Colin Powell — not the university itself — as a condition of his appearance on the campus:

Please note the following stipulations by Powell (emphasis mine – Ed.) concerning his 8 p.m. address:

At the event, journalists:

• May take video of the lobby of Loeb as attendees enter the playhouse. No video may be taken in Loeb Playhouse.

• May take photos at the photo opportunity and during the first three minutes of Powell’s talk. No flash photography is permitted.

• May not take any audio.

• May not direct any questions toward Powell.

Now of course, most seasoned journalists would read these rules and laugh out loud, “are you freakin’ kidding me?” Problem is, neither Powell or the university are kidding around here. They’re quite serious. And if you don’t abide by these “media guidelines,” you’ll be out on your bum…or at the very least, you sure won’t get much of a story.

But as a journalist, if you can’t tape record the speaker’s remarks or even ask a question, then why are you there

This is exactly the question my editor would ask me if I returned to the newsroom empty-handed after being assigned to cover a certain event. If my news organization had gone to the time and trouble to set up media credentials for a reporter and/or a photographer and set aside space for that story to run, you’re damn right they’d be pretty annoyed with me when I shrugged and told them I didn’t have a story because “someone said recording devices were not allowed.”

Any decent editor would probably tell me to go get another job. Followed by this old saw:

Look kid, when you’re assigned to cover a story, we expect you to get that story. If we can send journalists into a frickin’ war zone and get amazing stories out of them daily, we think you can handle filing footage of someone speaking at a local college campus. This ain’t rocket science, son, and your assignment could be a lot tougher. So quit whining about how some rent-a-cop wouldn’t let you in the door, already. We don’t pay you a salary to stand around looking good. We pay you to gather and report the news!”

Yep, that’s what any wizened, no-nonsense editor worth his or her salt would say to me, allright. And of course, I’d go home, crack open a six-pack of beer (to cry in) and pour through the help wanted ads hoping there might be a news organization out there in the world somewhere who might just hire me to not report the news.

“WHAT PART OF THE FIRST AMENDMENT DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?”

I thought I would pose the question to my “boss,” New Frontier, founding editor of this blog. She’s been my editor and mentor for nearly three years now, helping me navigate the often murky waters of obtaining my degree in journalism. After all, she been working as an editor in print and broadcast newsrooms since before I was even born, so surely she’d have an opinion on this whole Purdue/Kennedy situation, right?

Well, she sure did, and her passionate argument of “what part of the First Amendment do you not understand?” made me damn glad she’s not that poor cameraman at WLFI-TV’s editor! (I might also add that I’m damn glad that I’m not the cameraman at WLFI-TV, or I might just be standing in the unemployment line right now.)

So, I asked her, what should a reporter do under those circumstances? What is the proper procedure to follow when you or your organization is denied access to cover a public event? Then, just to draw a good hypothetical, I used this week’s Purdue/Kennedy incident as an example. If I had been the reporter assigned to the story, and I was told upon arrival at the event to put my camera or tape recorder away, what would she, as my editor, advise me to do?

She laid out a time-proven battle plan for journalists. And it goes a little something like this:

* If you are a credentialed member of the press, on assignment to cover an event, and you are denied access or the ability to fully do your job, the first thing you do is complain. Find an event manager or better yet, a media relations representative for the university and tell them you wish to be admitted and to perform your duties without unreasonable restrictions.

* If that doesn’t work, and the event is still in progress, call your editor immediately. You’d be amazed at the results a good editor can get in these situations with just a few well-placed phone calls. Chances are good that you’ll be in the door, camera in hand, within 5-10 minutes.

* If it is an after-hours event, or no responsible person to make decisions on the university’s behalf can be located in person or by phone, you may have to resort to less-desirable tactics, such as yelling in a crowded room of students that your First Amendment rights as a member of the press are being infringed. That tends to get the attention of higher-ups rather quickly. The downside is, it may also get you arrested for disturbing the peace! So if you have to use this tactic, be prepared to go to jail for a few hours until your editor can bail you out. Make sure you have your editor’s permission to engage in this act of civil disobedience and your news org’s solemn pledge that they will defend you legally as a representative of that news organization.

* If you have the support and backing of your editor and your news organization, go to court. A precedent-setting case will help future generations of journalists have free and fair access to cover public figures in public places.

* Make a story out of the fact that you have no story. If you are denied the ability to produce your story (for example, if you work for a TV station and can’t really produce a story without video footage), that is a story in itself. Write about the resistance you encountered as a member of the press and let the people decide in the court of public opinion.

* As soon as possible after the event, contact the university spokesperson and ask them to comment on why your organization was denied access, and what the university’s media access policy is. Publish that comment in your story and also try to obtain official statements on the matter from the university president or college dean. 

In the specific case of what happened at Purdue Thursday night, my “editorial guru” was very adamant that the first thing that must be determined is exactly who was responsible for the decision to prevent media from taking audio or video of the event. Was this Purdue’s policy, or were the press restrictions imposed at Mr. Kennedy’s request?

As the founding editor of this blog, New Frontier found it very hard to believe that any of this was Kennedy’s idea. Knowing Bobby somewhat, she didn’t think such actions to be indicative of his character. We have covered several of his public appearances in the past (some on university campuses) and never experienced any difficulty obtaining media access or credentials. No restrictions were placed upon us; we were always allowed to tape and photograph freely. So while she couldn’t say for certain if this Purdue media blackout was at Kennedy’s request, she did encourage me to do some research and get to the bottom of it. 

So I tried to obtain a comment from someone at Purdue University today. So far, no response to my written request for a clarification on the matter. As soon as we recieve definitive word from Purdue as to which party imposed these restrictions on the press, we’ll post an update here. Stay tuned…

UPDATE: (Monday, Feb. 23, 2009): According to Jeanne Norberg of Purdue’s News Service, the decision to prohibit audio and video recordings of RFK Jr’s speech was made by Mr. Kennedy’s representatives at Keppler Speakers. Keppler is the agency that exclusively handles all of Kennedy’s speaking engagements.

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Filed under climate change, environment, global warming, media, politics, RFK, RFK Jr., robert f. kennedy, robert kennedy jr., the kennedys, Uncategorized

Op-Ed: JFK Anniversary Tainted By Poor News Reporting

STORIES SAD BUT (NOT) TRUE

President Kennedy rides through the streets of Dallas. Nov. 22, 1963

President Kennedy rides through the streets of Dallas. Nov. 22, 1963

While browsing through the various and sundry news reports marking the 45th anniversary of the JFK Assassination yesterday, I was struck by one strange but nonetheless glaring error which was reported by several major news organizations around the globe. From a curiously uncited wire service report:

It was 45 years ago today that President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed as he rode in an open limousine in a motorcade through downtown Dallas.

The gunshots rang out shortly before noon as crowds lining the street watched in horror as the president slumped over in the backseat of his limousine, with fatal wounds to his head and neck.

Okay , now take a closer look at the second paragraph. Anything jump out at you? (OK, besides the fact that the entire paragraph is one big sloppy run-on sentence.)

The wire copy reports that shots rang out “just before noon.” As anyone who has ever read a history book knows, President Kennedy was shot at 12:30 p.m. central time.

This wire story was picked up by local, national, and international news outlets around the world yesterday. All of them ran the erroneous text exactly as it appears above. Obviously, not a single copy editor at any of these media organizations who ran the article noticed or corrected the error. Even more troubling is that none of their readers or viewers did, either. (Or, if they did notice and complain, their comments and letters to the editor were censored.)

Even when I tuned in to hear Dan Rather talk about covering the assassination on Mike Huckabee’s primetime weekend FoxNews program, I was appalled to hear this exact same error repeated again during Fox’s top-of-the-hour news break at 8 p.m. eastern. This time from the lacquered lips of weekend newsbunny, Emerson College grad and Emmy-award winning anchor Julie Banderas:

“And on this day in 1963, the people of Dallas, Texas, lined the downtown streets for a glimpse of their young president as his motorcade drove past. President John F. Kennedy rode in the back of an open limousine, waving and smiling to the throng. Then, just before noon, the smiles in Dealey Plaza turned to horror as shots rang out…”

So…let me get this straight: a bullet, fired “just before noon” hovers in midair for 30 minutes before hitting its’ target at 12:30 p.m.? Wow, that really IS one hell of a magic bullet! (And you thought all that zigging and zagging it could do was impressive!)

In any murder case — certainly in the most hotly-debated murder case of the 20th century — 30 minutes makes a huge difference.  Had shots rang out “just before noon” as erroneously reported, the president would have been assassinated while deplaning Air Force One. (Kennedy’s plane touched down at Dallas Love Field just before noon.) The only motorcade in Dallas that day would have been the one rushing him immediately to the nearest hospital. He would have been pronounced dead by 12:30 p.m., and history would have been written very differently.

Yeah, in a parallel universe. The one inhabited by lazy wire service writers who make up alternate versions of history out of thin air. (Because there is not an encyclopedia in the world which reports JFK’s murder as having taken place before noon.) The fantasy world populated by copy editors at mainstream media outlets worldwide who are apparently too stupid (or at the least mentally-challenged) to fact-check a story. The universe filled with attractive talking heads (“anchor” is too complimentary a word for them) who are too dense and self-absorbed to know or even care if the story they are reading to millions of viewers is accurate.

The Way It SHOULD Have Happened on 11-22-63. Since were making up our own versions of history now, why not try this scenario on for size?

In my parallel universe: The Way It SHOULD Have Happened on 11-22-63. Since we're making up our own versions of history now, why not try this scenario on for size?

JOURNALISM 101 CLASS IS NOW IN SESSION

The first thing an aspiring reporter learns in journalism school is that every story must answer five questions: WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, AND WHY? (Also known as “the five W’s”) The questions must be addressed in the first two paragraphs of the story (known as the “lede”), and the information must be accurate, based on information provided by at least two reliable sources.

In the case of President Kennedy’s assassination, accurate information which answers the first four questions is readily available from any library, history book, encyclopedia, newspaper archive, or a basic web search. This stuff ain’t rocket science. Any ten year-old taking a history exam could gather the following:

WHO? — President John F. Kennedy

WHAT? — Assassination

WHEN? — November 22, 1963 at 12:30 p.m.

WHERE? — In a motorcade traveling down Elm Street in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas.

Now, as for that tricky fifth question — WHY? — that’s the rest of your story.

WHY is the question the American people still want answered, even after 45 years.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to count on our press to find the answer to that one (a notion that certainly wouldn’t surprise longtime JFK conspiracy researchers). After all, if they can’t even give us an accurate account of WHEN the president was killed (a fact of the case which has never been in dispute), how could we expect them to do any serious investigation into WHY the president was killed?

IT’S THE MEDIA, STUPID

This blog is always critical of the media any time they report bad information about the Kennedy family. We’re quick to point out their easily avoidable errors, outrageous mistakes and boneheaded bloopers.

Unfortunately, they’ve been keeping us awfully busy this past year, as the quality of reporting continues to slide rapidly downhill and somebody’s got to call `em out on it. So we do. But this particular one really hit home for me. If they can’t even get the basic facts straight about JFK’s assassination on the 45th anniversary, this does not bode well for what the coverage is going to look like on the 50th anniversary. Or the 150th.

Heaven help us, God Bless President Kennedy, and Goddamn the lazy, coddled infants of our fourth estate who can’t be bothered to Google the initials “JFK” before running a story about him. Shame, shame, shame!

(And if you think my choice of words might be just a tad harsh, take a listen to this profanity-laden tirade JFK unleashed upon Gen. Godfrey McHugh after the president read a news report he didn’t like:)

(Kennedy, an avid reader, experienced reporter, and tough-as-nails media critic, then called up Arthur Sylvester, his old friend and former newspaperman who now served as Assistant Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs, to let off some more steam over the “fuck-up”.  This phone call is absolutely hilarious!)

FOR FURTHER READING ON MORE MEDIA KENNEDY “WONDER BLUNDERS”, WE RECOMMEND:

Whoops, They Did It Again

(yes, even the Boston Globe, the Kennedys’ hometown newspaper)

ABC News Can’t Keep Their Kennedys Straight

(apparently, NBC News can’t either. See story below.)

Say WHAT? Matt Lauer to RFK Jr.: “How’s Your Dad?”

(you absolutely, positively can’t make this stuff up, folks!)

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