September 20, 2020

Media access to wildfires, disasters varies widely by state

Journalists have captured searing, intimate images of active and dangerous wildfires burning in California, due in large part to a decades-old state law that guarantees press virtually unfettered access to disaster sites in evacuated areas that are off-limits to the public.

That’s not the case everywhere as rules about media access vary by state, and even by government agency.

Wildfires are raging in several states in the western U.S., scorching an unprecedented amount of land, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes and killing at least 23 people across Oregon, Washington and California. But the images and words the public sees vary greatly because of the level of access granted journalists.

Daniel Berlant, an assistant deputy director with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said beyond the law, California journalists are given free reign because fire officials want the public to understand and see what is at stake.

“During a natural disaster and during a wildfire, people are making decisions about their family and their own safety, and in many cases, people are going to follow our request for evacuations if they’re actually able to see how destructive the disaster is,” he said.

Some other states only allow journalists behind fire lines with escorts, while others rarely grant permission for reporters to get anywhere near an active wildfire, saying that safety is paramount.

New Mexico prohibits journalists from going into areas where wildfires actively are burning, said Wendy Mason, a former television journalist who is now spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. She said journalists could face penalties from local sheriffs offices.

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“You certainly would get a good talking to and immediately moved out of the area,” she said.

Scott Stoddard, editor of the Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Oregon, has been arguing for years for that state to match California’s law. Journalists there can’t go past roadblocks without an escort, weakening the coverage that’s critical to the community, he said.

It’s particularly ridiculous when residents and even campers with reservations are allowed access, but not the people whose job is to inform the public, he said.

“There were no photojournalists to witness those flames,” he said of the fire that wiped out much of small Oregon town of Phoenix. “It’s either photos provided by an agency or residents, and that seems out of balance when the professional storytellers aren’t there on the scene.”

In Washington state, media can’t go behind fire lines without an escort, protective gear and advance training. Even then, photographers and reporters may be denied access if conditions are too dangerous, said Bobbi Cussins, spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources.

State, federal and tribal agencies in Arizona consider fire behavior and weather air operations among other things before deciding whether to escort journalists in protective gear to the fire line, said Tiffany Davila, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

“We try to provide as much access as possible and get the reporter as close to the fire without jeopardizing the …read more

Source:: News Headlines

      

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