“I’ve got one of your reporters in our holding cell:” How to “deal with it” when journalists become the news for all the wrong reasons

In covering the news, journalists can occasionally find themselves becoming the news. This happens when reporters attempt to do their jobs, as was the case of Dan Heyman, who was arrested in West Virginia for persistently asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price questions. (The charges of “willful disruption of governmental processes” were dropped four months later.) In another incident, a reporter was arrested at the New York Capitol for using a cell phone while in the building. According to media reports, a discussion between Ken Lovett and Capitol police regarding the phone “escalated quickly” leading to Lovett’s arrest. The situation ended shortly afterward when Gov. Andrew Cuomo had him released.

Then there was the case of Adair “A.J.” Bayatpour, who was arrested on a tentative charge of substantial battery while reporting on a Milwaukee Brewers/Chicago Cubs game Friday. According to the police report, Bayatpour was sitting at the game with his colleague Madeline Anderson and her fiancee, a local NBC reporter named Ben Jordan, when the even occurred. An article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel stated that this all began when Anderson showed Bayatpour a photo of a bulldog. The situation escalated to the point where Bayatpour punched Jordan in the face three times, breaking his nose, chipping a tooth and causing orbital bone fractures.

Boy… That escalated quickly…

FTVLive.com, which first reported the incident, accused FOX-6 of having “buried” the incident in its newscast. The site also noted that neither reporter was reporting on the game at the time of the arrest, which probably didn’t make things any better for either TV station.

When media practitioners become “the news,” it makes things awkward for other journalists who have to cover the situation. Even more, when you have to report on someone in your own newsroom, it’s downright weird.

When I was working as a crime editor/night city editor at the Columbia Missourian, I got a call from my wife, who was a dispatcher for the University of Missouri’s police department. (In some other post, I’ll get into how awkward THAT kind of situation is.) Thus began one of the weirder phone calls of our marriage:

Me: “Hello?”
Her: “Hey, it’s me. I’ve got one of your reporters in our holding cell.”
Me: “What?”
Her: “We arrested one of your reporters. He’s in our holding cell, singing show tunes to the security camera.”
Me: “Wait… WHAT?”

It turns out the reporter was picked up with a couple roommates on suspicion of burglarizing a historic home on our campus, an action that included the theft of an $11,000 oil painting. The kid seemed oblivious to what was going on, as he apparently told the person taking his mug shot that he was “ready for my close up” and then started singing and dancing after the police put him in cell. Amy explained that he was driving the officers crazy.

I can’t remember exactly the order of the next several events that occurred, but I ended up informing my boss, assigning the story and running a piece on this guy. (I don’t remember if we used the mug shot and I can’t find a copy of this online.) As we were both a city paper and an educational endeavor, we were not allowed to dismiss him from the paper until he was tried and convicted or until he pled out. Thus, as my reporter is writing a follow-up story on this burglary, the accused was sitting about 10 feet away at another terminal, working on a feature story about something or other.

“Hey, can you come over and read this story about the stupid burglary thing?” I remember my reporter yelling to me, as I was walking across the newsroom.

“Shut up!” I hissed at him. “The guy’s right over there.”

Eventually there was a plea or something (I have open records requests in at about three university and state agencies, so I’ll fill in more if I ever hear back…), thus pushing the kid out of the newsroom and mercifully allowing the story to end.

Based on this experience and talking to others who have had similar “Oh, God, why do we have to report on this?” situations, here are a few basic bits of advice in case you have to deal with this:

Treat it like every other story, even though it’s not: The news is the news, regardless of how happy or displeased it makes you. Thus, you need to knuckle down and do your job. If you’re the editor, assign a reporter who is qualified and least likely to have a conflict of interest in reporting the story. If you are the reporter chosen for this fantastic assignment, do the same things you do for every story: Request documents, verify facts, seek sources and get interviews. If the person is willing to talk, treat that person like you would any other source. That means also not allowing the person to be near you when you’re putting the story together. Give it the same play you would for other stories involving “minor local celebrities” and give it the same amount of space/time/word count you would as well. Then, move on.

Transparency, transparency, transparency: You do not want to be late on this story, nor do you want to hide this somewhere. What news reporters tell PR professionals in that chastising tone comes back to roost here: The more you hide something, the more people will dig and the worse it will get. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lead with a “GUESS WHAT OUR GUY/GAL DID!” lead, but you don’t want to try to gloss this over as well. Try using an “interesting-action lead” and focusing on the situation as opposed to a “name-recognition lead” and focusing on the person. Still, get it out there and get it over with.

Have a plan as to how you will respond to others: OK, you know how YOU want to handle this, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is going to follow suit. Depending on where you work and how many people really dig this stuff, you might get one call for a comment or five dozen. The trick is to take a page from the PR practitioners’ playbook and have a plan for handling this: Who will speak, what the statement will be, when they will make it and how they will handle any inquiries beyond that first-day story. Just because you want something to be over, it doesn’t mean that’s going to happen.

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