The Washington Times-Herald

December 1, 2011

Stop restricting journalism at 'Occupy' sites

John Ensslin
CNHI

Montgomery. AL — Across the country, there's been an alarming trend lately of journalists being arrested, detained or restricted from doing their jobs at various "Occupy" demonstrations.

Some were covering the story for mainstream media. Some were freelancers. Others were students.

The arrests occurred in New York City, Atlanta, Oakland, Nashville, Milwaukee and elsewhere.

The details and circumstances of the arrests varied widely, but there was one common denominator: These were journalists doing their job covering a news event of public interest. They were practicing journalism, not civil disobedience.

While it's outrageous to see reporters and photographers being led away in handcuffs for doing their jobs, I am not without some degree of empathy for the police officers who find themselves in the middle of demonstration. It has to do with my background. My brother was a police officer in New Jersey. And for 12 years, I covered the police beat in Denver for the Rocky Mountain News.

During those years, my brother and I would sometimes talk about our respective work. Watching my brother do his job and talking to him about mine taught me a profound respect for the often difficult and chaotic situations in which police officers sometimes find themselves.

But journalists also frequently find themselves dealing with chaotic situations because that's where news happens.

I've covered a few riots. Believe me, they are no fun. I've been tear-gassed. I've been hit in the shoulder with a fist-sized chunk of ice. I narrowly dodged a rock hurled my way. In one instance, a Denver detective came to my rescue at a crime scene where an angry crowd had formed.

So I understand how in the heat of a confusing moment, mistakes are made. I suspect and hope that's what happened to most of the journalists swept up in these recent arrests.

We always encourage ethical journalists and news outlets to own up to mistakes and run a public correction when warranted.

It was in that spirit recently that the Society of Professional Journalists called upon the authorities in the cities where these arrests occurred and asked them to own up to mistakes and drop the charges against these journalists.

We also offered to host a series of public forums where journalists and law enforcement officials can have a frank and candid discussion of what happened in their city.

I'm hoping the mayors and police chiefs in these cities take us up on this offer.

Police and journalists both have jobs to do. However, no one in a democracy is served when reporters and photographers are improperly arrested or otherwise restricted for doing their jobs.

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John C. Ensslin is the president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Contact him at jensslin@spj.org.