Reporters on the Firing Line
How much do you risk for the big story?
By Penny Bender Fuchs
Penny Bender Fuchs is director of career placement and professional development at the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
The police scanner squawked orders for officers to "Get out! Get out now!" as television crews cried over two-way radios that their vans were being rocked by rioters. Columns of people stampeded down Normandie Avenue, and blacks shouted obscenities at passing white motorists. Anxious Los Angeles Times reporter Shawn Hubler steered a car through the intersection where, in a manner of minutes, truck driver Reginald Denny would be yanked from his rig and beaten nearly to death.
Hubler and photographer Ken Lubas – seeking reaction shortly after the Rodney King verdict – found themselves in the middle of an angry mob with no police in sight. As Lubas leaned out the passenger window to take pictures, Hubler tried to avoid attracting attention. "I was white, the photographer was white, even our car was white," she says. As she steered into a left turn lane and onto Florence Avenue, black youths peered into their sedan and screamed, "Motherfuckers!" Bricks and chunks of asphalt rained onto the car, and Hubler thought, "I can't be here. I have a six-month-old baby at home. I have two children. I want to go back and do rewrite."
Once they had cleared the intersection, Lubas asked Hubler if she wanted to take another spin around the block. The answer was a resounding no. "Maybe five years ago I would have said yes," explains Hubler, a reporter for 14 years who is no stranger to covering urban violence. "If I had been the only reporter in town, sure, I would have made another go-through. But I wasn't. There are hundreds of reporters at the L.A. Times."
After pausing a moment, she adds, "It's one thing to be aggressive. It's another thing to be stupid. This isn't the Army. This isn't the priesthood. At some point you have to decide: Is your life in service of your job or is your job in service of your life?"
Hubler was one of scores of reporters, photographers and camera crew members who faced that dilemma as Los Angeles, Atlanta and other cities erupted in violence after the King verdict on April 29. Editors deployed their staffs with strict admonitions to stay out of harm's way but to get as close to the action as they could. But is there a safety zone from which to cover a riot? Does sticking close to the police offer any security? And when is the best time to pull out – before or after shots are fired?
The questions are the same ones journalists asked during the riots of the 1960s, but with one important twist – many more of today's protesters view the press with a suspicious eye, considering it part of the establishment they are rebelling against. And that puts reporters and photographers in even greater danger, many agree.
More than a dozen journalists were injured in the rioting in Los Angeles and Atlanta; one freelance writer, Jeff Kramer, was shot in the leg and shoulder in Los Angeles, and a United Press International radio reporter, Bob Brill, was dragged from a phone booth and beaten while filing an eyewitness account of the attack on Denny. John Walter, managing editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, says about a dozen of his employees were attacked, robbed or had their cars damaged with rocks and bottles. While the Committee to Protect Journalists counts colleagues injured and killed in other countries (66 were killed or missing in 1991), no one tallies how many U.S. reporters and photographers are harmed in this country each year.
Robert J. Haiman, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and former executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, believes journalists in large cities can face many of the same dangers as their overseas counterparts. Riots, drive-by shootings and other violence in American cities expose reporters and photographers "to the same sort of violence as the reporters in the mountains of Peru," he says.
For foreign correspondents, risks are often a matter of choice. Reporters who seek foreign assignments have decided they want to cover civil unrest in Yugoslavia, the drug warlords in South America or the war in the Persian Gulf; journalists at home have battles thrust at them whether they want them or not. While many editors stress that their staff members can opt not to cover urban violence, more often they have to be restrained from going too far to get the story. "No reporter has ever said to me, 'Gee, I'm a little scared. Give this story to someone else,' " Haiman says. "Usually, the adrenaline is pumped, the sirens are screaming and everybody is ready to go."
Greg Braxton, a 10-year veteran at the L.A. Times, says his family and friends were concerned that he was going into riot-torn South-Central Los Angeles. Even after someone pointed a shotgun at his fleeing car and fired three or four shots (they all missed), Braxton is glad he went. "I didn't have any hesitation because this is what it's all about," he says. "This is what we're here for. If we can't handle this, we can't handle much of anything. Being part of this story was its own reward."
The community receives the greater reward, says John Seigenthaler. A former reporter and the longtime editor and publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, Seigenthaler served in the early 1960s as an aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Without reporters in the thick of the civil rights protests 30 years ago, the public would not have known how violently many in the South rejected integration, he says.
In 1961, Kennedy sent Seigenthaler to Alabama to assure the safety of Freedom Riders, peaceful protesters both black and white, who came south by bus, sat with whites at lunch counters and used "whites only" bathrooms at rest stops. He watched as a throng of angry whites beat Freedom Riders as they got off a bus in Montgomery. The mob attacked journalists along with the civil right workers, and Seigenthaler, himself, was beaten – struck in the head with a pipe and left bleeding in the street for 30 minutes after he tried to rescue two women.
"There is no telling how many times the presence of cameras has saved people from being in trouble," he says. "Desegregation would never have occurred if the national press had not come down there." He adds, "The more we have people who are up close, the better chance we have to understand what it was about. I think there is an obligation to cover these stories. I also think there is an obligation not to ask anyone who does not want to go, to go."
The danger to reporters covering violent confrontations has not diminished since those times, but the perception of the media has changed dramatically. Once considered the champions of the downtrodden, newspapers and television stations are now thought by many inner city residents to be extensions of the police. Many photographers and reporters say they were chased from neighborhoods or angrily accused of only covering negative news in South-Central Los Angeles.
Reporters no longer have an invisible shield of neutrality, says freelancer Kramer, who was stringing for the Boston Globe when he was attacked. Shot eight times in the leg and shoulder by black men who surrounded his car at a crowded intersection, Kramer says he told his attackers that he was a reporter, hoping that would dissuade them. "They said, 'We don't care what you are. Get the fuck out of the car.' "
Charles Walston, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, tells a similar story. He was struck in the head from behind with an unknown object, knocked to the ground and kicked by two or three rioters just "15 feet from the door where I come into work every day," he says. Walston also told his attackers he was a journalist. "I didn't think I was singled out because I was a reporter. It occurred to me when I was on the ground that it didn't matter that I was a reporter."
"The days are over when we can march into these areas with impunity," Kramer says. "Big papers are so much a part of the establishment and the entrenched power structure... We are dealing with people so alienated from the culture that they are indifferent to us. They don't see us as someone who can advance their cause. They see us as part of the problem, not the solution."
South-Central L.A. residents reached a saturation point with the media as well, says Los Angeles Daily News City Editor Mark Barnhill. "Very quickly people down there got the feeling they were being exploited" by the press. "There was some justification in their complaints that the media only comes there for the bad news."
Subpoenas ordering the Los Angeles newspapers and television stations to turn over pictures and videotape of looters and rioters may create more danger for reporters covering future outbreaks. It is "an attempt to turn reporters into tools of law enforcement," says Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press. In addition to a First Amendment issue, "we may have a physical safety issue here as well," she says. "If I were a rioter now, I would smash the camera so there would be no record of my looting and then I'd turn on the cameraman... That will be the inevitable fallout from this."
Short of handing every reporter and photographer riot gear, editors agree there isn't much else they can do to ensure the safety of their staffs. Nearly all were sent out in teams of at least two and equipped with cellular phones. Editors said they sent minority employees into some of the burning neighborhoods because they believed that black reporters and photographers could better blend into the crowds and talk to angry people.
There will never be hard rules for covering life-threatening stories and there never should be, say many reporters, photographers and editors. Those decisions can be made only by the individuals in the field and editors have to trust that they have employees with enough street savvy to make wise choices.
The Miami Herald has sent reporters to burning and looted neighborhoods at least four times in the past decade, says Managing Editor Pete Weitzel. "You urge them not to take any risks and to use common sense," he says. "However good the story is, it isn't worth being killed or injured. We tell them, 'You've go to get back safely in order to pass on the information or pictures. Keep that in mind.' "
If you are talking about Preparatory Riot 101, I don't think that's a reasonable solution," says the Los Angeles Times' Braxton. In Braxton's view, the only way to plan for a riot is to know the city's neighborhoods well enough to predict when tensions are running high. "I think that the media need to be prepared," he says, "and they can only be prepared by keeping their pulse on the community."
Says Jeff Wald, executive director of news programming at KCOP-TV in Los Angeles: "We have to understand the root of the problems. We cannot continue to go on the air night after night doing pieces after the fact. We have to change our focus to deal with the causes" of violence.
Despite what some described as the most fear they have ever experienced in their lives, many reporters and photographers say they would do it again.
"History was happening in front of me. I didn't think I could live with myself if I didn't go out and cover it," says Ed Carreon, a photographer for the Orange County Register who ventured out during the first night of rioting without his paper's blessing. Despite the threats he encountered, he says he would act no differently in the future.
But not Jeff Kramer. "Frankly, no, I wouldn't cover the story today in the same way. As reporters, we've got to cover riots. I'm not disputing the news value. But knowing what I know, and having faced this head on and realizing that just telling someone, 'I'm a reporter,' isn't going to work anymore, I just don't think it's worth it." l