It happens every once in a while. A cop tells a journalist to move away from the scene of a news story in progress. The journalist resists and winds up getting fined or arrested.
A recent case in point: In April a TV reporter and photographer were shooting an accident on a freeway in El Paso, Texas. They had parked their vehicle in a freeway median. Traffic was flowing past them just a few feet away.
A cop told them to move on. They declined. He took them into custody.
The situation, as a quick view of the tape suggests, is something most journalists want to avoid (http://myhighplains.com/content/fulltext/?cid=51925).
In the aftermath, the news station got involved, as did the police officer's higher-ups. The police department gave the officer a desk job while it investigated and later admitted that the officer overreacted.
Unfortunately, incidents in which police and journalists are at odds over access to the scene of a news event are not all that uncommon.
Last year, journalists in Newark and in Chicago were arrested when shooting public events. In the Chicago incident, police erased the memory cards in Mike Anzaldi's still cameras (http://www.nppa.org/news_and_events/news/2008/10/tv.html) before he was released from jail. He was eventually tried and acquitted of charges related to the arrest.
These stories should attract the attention of every journalist in the country. Particularly at a time when news organizations are going broke, freelancers are finding it harder to earn a living, and citizen journalists are taking on an increasingly important role in covering public affairs.
Established news organizations have a lot of ways to back their journalists: a phone call or pointed letter to police, an editorial condemning a district attorney's heavy-handedness, or maybe even some kind of legal action.
But what if the journalist doesn't work for the mainstream media? What about "citizen journalists" or freelancers?
Who will go to bat for their right to take pictures in a public forum? How will they defend themselves against public officials – police and politicians – who unlawfully obstruct their access to news and information?
We think one answer is for full-time, freelance and citizen journalists alike to commit (or recommit) to professional organizations that defend freedom of speech, public access to information, and the freedom of the press.
These groups promote norms and ethics, provide training for individuals who are trying to improve their craft, and create opportunities to network with other professionals.
They are also a voice of moral authority to those outside the profession. That's because professional organizations adopt codes of ethics in order to ensure that their members do not cause harm to the public by misusing the special skills and knowledge that they possess.
Defending journalists' access to news and information can be easier when journalists are standing on the high ground of professional norms and responsibilities.
Finally, and perhaps the most important reason to join professional organizations is that these organizations offer strength in numbers.
In the past, journalists have been lukewarm about joining professional organizations. They prefer to see themselves as independent. They are sometimes unsure of the benefits of membership and the need to accept professional codes of ethics and norms of behavior. But it's undeniable that the voice of a group is louder, on the whole, than the voice of a single aggrieved individual. The group gains moral authority if it's backed by a code of ethics that is accepted, and followed, by its members.
Organizing journalists and photojournalists is a long-term process. Existing professional associations and emerging non-profit organizations are places to focus the effort. They will become much more influential with more members.
Strong professional organizations may be able to establish defense funds and access legal help far more effectively than individuals working alone.
As powerful news outlets whither, journalists will have to find other sources of leverage against police who confiscate their photographs or arrest them without proper cause.
Whatever the mechanism, journalists – paid or unpaid, establishment or new wave – must work together to protect their freedoms. They must find ways to implement reasonable standards and practices, including codes of ethics, that will bolster their credibility and their claim to First Amendment protections.