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Sending journalists into danger

Sometimes danger happens unexpectedly: Things begin to get ugly as an unruly crowd turns violent at the San Diego Sports Arena. Photo by John Gregory

A pesky freelancer and a police standoff

An unexpected call set me back in my seat one morning. It was from that freelance photographer, the one who kept pushing his photos on me. Now he was squatting behind a police car, calling from his cell phone. Some guy was firing a weapon at the busiest intersection in San Diego, he reported, and now there was a standoff — all traffic halted. “All the cops have their weapons drawn,” he said.

I reminded him that I had not authorized him to be at the scene, and nervously suggested he leave for his own safety. “It’s okay,” he said. “The police let me borrow a flak vest.”

The police chase away my authorized reporters and photographers from crime scenes, yet they lend this guy a vest at a live standoff? You’ve got to be kidding! Normally I'd be excited about a photographer's drive to capture the news, but this guy was a definite loose cannon. Still, I had concerns for his safety.

Double personality

The recent riots in Baltimore reminded me of my double personality that arises every time a violent or tragic story plays out on the news. I would not have approved of any of my regular staff members getting so close to a clearly dangerous situation, yet I can’t help staying up all night to watch riot coverage on TV. In fact, I fear for the safety of the reporters I see conducting coverage in a dangerous area, and I wonder how their editors or news directors can send these journalists into such situations. They must be like some sort of callous general sending troops into the meat grinder of battle. Still, I have to watch.

Yes, I must admit I can’t take my eyes of a good riot or tragedy, but I personally have mostly stayed with community journalism so that I would not have to send my journalists into a danger zone. A heated council meeting is as much danger as any member of my teams have faced, as far as I know.

I love a good riot

I know it’s not politically correct, but I love a good riot. A murder, bleh. A shooting, okay. A natural catastrophe, interesting. A war, yes. But a riot, God help me, I love it.

It’s okay to condemn me for my lack of concern for social justice, but before you rush to judgment, allow me to explain. Then you can condemn me all you want.

A product of the TV generation

I grew up when the vast impact of TV news was truly being discovered, and I witnessed just about every moment of this golden era. I’m a product of the time. I sat on the floor playing with my fire trucks watching the U.S. space program. I was watching CBS when Walter Cronkite interrupted daytime programming to announce that President Kennedy had been shot. My family, including Grandma, sat on the couch in our living room, curtains drawn, watching JFK’s funeral procession. Less than six years later we sat on that same couch, curtains drawn again, watching coverage of the Apollo moon landing.

My family would share pages of each day’s newspaper every evening. On some occasions we would pull up our TV trays next to our couch and watch the evening news while eating dinner, witnessing the Vietnam War in black and white as a family — action, violence, drama and mashed potatoes. The fact that it was not fictional made it all the more fascinating. It was really happening right then, halfway across the world — some of it live via satellite!

Protests and riots were commonplace in those days. There were the Watts riots in 1965, the Detroit riots in 1967. It seemed protests against the Vietnam War were a daily occurrence, many turning violent. Violence in the streets was reported on the news every night back then. Protests, riots — oh, the tear gas flowed.

Civil unrest became part of the culture. Andy Griffith appeared as a guest on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” one night. He was dressed as a riot cop for a skit about protests. He acted as if he was being interviewed by a TV reporter live on the street. His character admitted to regularly swatting the heads of protestors with his club. The punch line: “I hate it when they get between me and the TV camera.”

My father and I spent an entire week of evenings watching the 1968 Democratic National Convention live from Chicago. Those protests really broke down into some violent clashes. Something simultaneously repulsed me and drew me toward them. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s heavy-handed tactics in dealing with the protestors spilled into the convention center one night. Then it happened: Dan Rather waded into the crowd on the convention floor to ask why a man was being arrested. Bam! A law officer of some sort slugged Rather in the gut and he disappeared beneath a sea of people. Walter Cronkite, anchoring the convention for CBS, was startled. “Dan, Dan, are you okay?”

As a kid, that one moment stayed with me and has never disappeared from my memory. I experienced a feeling of concern for Rather’s safety. It was fine for him to provide the coverage, but I didn’t want him to get hurt.

Can’t turn away

My wife has witnessed my enthusiasm for riot coverage before. She wasn’t sure what to think at first, but I saw that she couldn’t hide her interest, either. So, when the riots in Baltimore broke out, we naturally tuned in. I stayed up watching them long after she had gone to bed.

I know I’m twisted and beyond help. But what about the news directors and editors who send their reporters out into the streets during the violence? Do they have any qualms? Does their conscience bother them? To what extent do they fear for the safety of their reporters? There’s no doubt such terrible events draw an audience, and I know the world needs to be aware of such events.

Police released these security camera images of a frightening bank robber wearing a hockey mask.

I don’t have any trouble publishing photos or stories of violent crimes, disasters or accidents. In fact, I once had a superstitious belief that a series of violent crime would follow me for about the first six weeks any time I would start a new job at a newspaper: an angry bank robber wearing a hockey mask, a standoff at a K-Mart (police shot the suspect six times, and he lived), a public stabbing, a drug shooting (body hanging out

the window above a taco shop), gang fights, a murder in the park, a guy commits suicide by driving his car off a beach cliff (see photo on right), a resident goes on a window-smashing rampage and is shot by police in an otherwise quiet neighborhood (photos of the incident provided by a neighbor). I published all of these, but I’m not into sending my people into danger. However, I have accompanied reporters to a few tense situations; walking into an illegal migrant camp, attending a fiery illegal immigration protest, but no riots.

Protestors march in San Diego demonstrating against the verdict in the Rodney King beating case, 1992.

I once assigned a reporter to cover a protest march in San Diego while the Rodney King riots raged in Los Angeles in 1992, but I went along to take photos. I weaved my way between the short-sleeved officers who lined up in front of the police station as the crowd approached. The police chose to forgo the riot gear. Protestors crowded in front of the cops and shouted at them face-to-face. The cops, both male and female, stood their ground but suppressed their emotions. Ten minutes later, the protestors stopped shouting and turned to march away. All in all, it was a fairly quiet night.

Later, I went home to view the news coverage of another tense evening in L.A. I thought about how much courage the journalists providing that coverage must have had, and I was grateful that I didn’t need to muster nearly as much courage nor face down my fears earlier that same evening.

Personally, I’m glad I have never sent a journalist into a truly violent situation. I would not be able to live with myself if any of my people were to be injured or killed covering one of my assignments. But I think I have a better understanding of assignment editors who make dangerous assignments, as well as the journalists willing to risk accepting those assignments. First of all, I consider journalism a way of life. It’s a noble discipline; almost a religion. Most journalists feel an obligation to cover events and disclose facts to the public. There is a serious, necessary need for objective reporting of verified facts, especially in places where injustice is flourishing. I truly respect those who perform this extremely important duty. Kidnappings, beheadings, mob violence and assaults, becoming a casualty of war; these are all risks that some special people push aside to perform their duty. I wonder if some even give it a second thought. I guess it depends on the value they place on what they risk forever leaving behind.

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