Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Right to Know

This has been a particularly nasty--and deadly--tornado season, as residents of the South and Midwest can attest. According to the Storm Prediction Center, there have been 731 reported twisters so far this year, with the promise of more to come. May is (typically) a peak month for tornadic activity, so more violent weather is a virtual certainty.

The 2008 season will also be remembered for twisters in places that rarely have them, including the Tidewater region of Virginia. On the afternoon of 28 April, an EF-3 tornado, packing winds approaching 160 miles an hour, slammed into suburban Suffolk, south of Norfolk. More than 200 homes and businesses were destroyed or suffered severe damage; miraculously, no one died.

In the storm's aftermath, Suffolk authorities implemented restrictions that limited media access to the hardest-hit areas, citing safety concerns. Members of the press were initially barred from certain neighborhoods, but received greater access as residents began to return. Last Wednesday, two days after the storm, reporters, photographers and videographers were allowed to visit the neighborhoods for 45 minutes; the following day, they were allowed in for two hours and on Friday, the access period ran from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.--a full 18 hours.

We should note that the media restrictions did not seem to affect coverage in the early hours after the tornado struck. Local TV viewers say ground and aerial reports from damaged areas throughout Monday afternoon and into the evening hours. And, the coverage limitations had no impact on media helicopters, which buzzed overhead for days.

To their credit, most of the media outlets in Hampton Roads accepted the restrictions, including the Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk) and Daily Press (Hampton) newspapers, as well as WVEC-TV and WAVY-TV, the local ABC and NBC affilates, respectively. Journalists from those stations, along with print photographers and reporters, found ways to operate within the guidelines--and deliver dramatic shots of the damage. WAVY's helicotper was in the air as soon as the storm passed and WVEC borrowed a chopper from a sister station in Charlotte (its own helicopter was down for repairs).

But the coverage limits were apparently too much for WTKR, the local CBS station. WTKR went to court yesterday and filed a lawsuit against Suffolk officials, claiming they lacked the authority to restrict media coverage. As the Pilot reports:

The complaint by WTKR, filed in circuit court, asserts that city officials and the local and state police do not have the authority to limit media access in such a way. It contends that the restrictions keep necessary information from getting to the public and hampers the ability of charitable groups to identify needs and give help. WTKR also contends that its viewership may suffer if its news crews are not able to timely and fully report the news.

The station seeks an injunction ordering the city and police to cease and desist denying the station access to all relevant areas at any time. It also seeks compensatory damages of not less than $75,000 and punitive damages of not less than $30,000 from each defendant: the city, the city attorney and the local and state police.

On its website, WTKR offered justification for its complaint, citing Virginia Code section 15.2-1714, which says members of the press are exempt from police lines and barriers at disaster scenes. And in a separate post, station news director Shane Moreland claimed that press restrictions represented a clear violation of state laws:

State statute specifically addresses the rights of media during times of Natural Disasters. That Code is below. Suffolk Police are directly violating that law and will give us no reason for the department's blatant violation. Officers on the scene told our reporters they are keeping us out 'because we don't want these people's houses seen on TV like this.' In fact, when they were restricting us they allowed anyone with a hardhat and clean up tools into that area unrestricted. We were allowed in, but only for brief :45 minute time periods. Again, no reason was given to us as to why there was a time limit on our news gathering operations. Finally Friday, they allowed us in all day, but kicked us out at 11pm. That 'curfew' is still in effect tonight.

But that begs an obvious question for WTKR: how much time do you really need? By Mr. Moreland's own admission, his crews had access to the disaster sites for longer periods each day, upwards of 18 hours on Friday alone. Surely that is sufficient time for reporters and photographers to gather information and video, and file their reports.

However, that way of thinking doesn't necessarily mesh with the mechanics of television news. The Suffolk tornado was a big story in Hampton Roads, and Mr. Moreland, like all news directors, wanted to lead his newscasts with a "live shot" from damaged neighborhoods, including broadcasts at 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. For maximum impact, those reports needed a backdrop of demolished homes, downed utility lines and mangled trees, something he couldn't get without access to affected areas.

More distressingly, there almost seems to be a promotional or "branding" element to the complaint. WTKR is a perpetual laggard in the Norfolk TV news wars; one evening before the storm, the station's 5:30 newscast had a rating of .59, well behind the competition on WVEC and WAVY, and trailing episodes of Dr. Phil, Maury Povich and even a Simpsons rerun on other local stations. Mr. Moreland, a long-time news director in Roanoke, was hired less than a year ago to turn Channel 3 around and bring in more viewers.

Part of his strategy appears to be wall-to-wall coverage of severe weather events, touting his station's new "Viper" radar. And sure enough, portions of WTKR's weather coverage have attracted a larger audience than rival WAVY, a trend that continued during the Suffolk tornado, at least until the NBC station got its chopper in the air.

Did we mention that WTKR doesn't have a helicopter? Or that Channel 3 is billing itself as the station that is "Taking Action" for viewers, by confronting con men, heartless corporations and (presumably), those officials in Suffolk who won't let news crews troll through a devastated neighborhood at 3 a.m.

There's nothing wrong with aggressive local news coverage. But it must be balanced against public safety concerns and the rights of storm victims. We haven't seen anything in the First Amendment (or the Virginia State Code) that gives reporters the right to badger residents who've just lost everything they own.

Judging from the comments in a Virginian-Pilot forum, most local residents seem to agree with Suffolk authorities, rather than WTKR. Many are upset that the station's attorneys sought monetary damages ($195K) in their initial filing, a loss supposedly caused by coverage restrictions. While the station insists the complaint isn't about money--and has offered to drop the damages claim--the station's legal maneuvering has struck a nerve with viewers. Take a look at their comments.

Sounds like some of the viewers in Hampton Roads will be "taking action"--with their remotes.

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