“Go take pictures of birds:” What happens when so-called adults treat student journalists poorly (and three tips for dealing with the situation properly)

When it comes to crime or disasters, the folks working the scene have a job to do and journalists need to respect that. However, respect goes both ways, something a firefighter interacting with journalists from The (El Camino College) Union didn’t quite understand:

The firefighter told (Rosemary) Montalvo, an assistant photo editor who was taking pictures of the scene, to “Go take pictures of birds,” she said.

“In my head I said ‘OK, we’re not going to get anywhere with him,’ so I decided to say ‘can I have your name and your badge number,” Montalvo said.

The firefighter refused, and said he intentionally was wearing nothing that would identify him, Montalvo said.

This isn’t the first time a student journalist met with the journalistic equivalent of a “Go (expletive) yourself” comment from a person in power. A few years back, a journalist for the Royal Purple, the paper at UW-Whitewater, apparently ran afoul of the school’s head football coach, who told him the perennial D-III national champions were off limits to the paper:

According to a story in the student paper, Leipold took the action after becoming angry over an editorial titled, “Spoiled athletes need reality check.”

Leipold then initially decided that no one from the student-run newspaper could call anyone associated with the football program unless he approved. And he said coaches or players would not be allowed to answer questions from student reporters during the 2009 season.

“The door is shut,” Leipold said Wednesday. “Go cover soccer…”

Leipold later apologized for his actions, but the sense that student journalism is some how “less than” really should bother anyone associated with journalism. I recall one incident in which our student paper’s photo editor went to the police station to request a mug shot we needed. The person at the desk flatly denied one existed for the photo editor. When the editor pointed to a copy of the photo pinned to a cork board over this woman’s desk, her response was, “Oh, that’s for the real newspaper in town,” meaning the city paper, the Muncie Star-Press. He returned empty handed and fuming.

The situation that bothered me the most, however, was one in which a student reporter told a broadcast news professor that she had to skip a class to cover a bit of breaking news. He responded that when she was done “playing journalist,” she should consider the importance of making it to class.

I get that nobody likes getting skipped out on, but a professor in a media field should clearly understand that breaking news happens and that insinuating that this was playing a Fisher-Price “My First Journalism” game is disingenuously insulting. Student journalists run the same risks as anyone else when it comes to being in the field. An active shooter doesn’t say, “Oh, you’re just PLAYING journalist, so let’s skip you…” A fire doesn’t go out of its way not to burn a student because, well, it’s just make-believe journalism. If you don’t believe me that student journalists risk a lot, go take a look at the Cavalier Daily’s coverage of the “Unite the Right” rally a few years back. Tear gas stings everyone equally and there were a lot of folks with guns out there who probably weren’t checking press passes to see which people were “real journalists.”

Student journalists also operate under the same First Amendment freedoms and run the same legal risks as anyone else. A student who libels a professor doesn’t get a “do-over” or something. A student publication that violates copyright can’t fight off a lawsuit with a hand-drawn “I’m berry berry sorry” card and a coupon for a “super-duper feature” in the next issue. People on the receiving end of problematic coverage from a student media outlet can decide to what degree they want to press the point legally, the same as if the offending work appeared in the New York Times.

When confronted with people who decide that your work lacks merit, simply because you are a student, consider these thoughts:


Remain Calm: When something essentially tries to treat you like a child, nothing proves their point better than if you act like one. Sure, that chucklehead is violating the Bill of Rights, flouting the law and basically ticking you off, but it’s much better to be in the right than to give that person ammunition to use against you later. A good rule of thumb: The worse your opponent acts, the more decent you should act.


Follow the Law: The approach the students at The Union took was perfect: Here’s the law, we’re just fine and we’re not going anywhere. They knew what their rights were and why it was they could do what they wanted. This is why most journalism programs make law a required course and why most student media organizations stress it for their staffers.

The Union folks also took a great step when they asked for identifying information from the official so they could deal with this after they did their job. The fact the guy did the, “You can’t make me! Neener, Neener, Neeeeenerrrr” thing pretty much made it clear he knew he was wrong. The staff followed up on the issue later with the fire department and got a nice apology from officials there, who promised to look into this issue.


Stay Safe: This is especially true when you cover chaotic or breaking situations. The law can protect you from a lot of ramifications, but sometimes, being right, calm and lawful won’t make you whole. The conversation I had with Tim Dodson from Virginia really drove home that point: He was watching people carry torches and guns, dealing with tear gas and riotous conditions and looking at a situation that ended with at least one person dead. Did he and his staff have the right to be there? Absolutely. If something had gone wrong, was the law on their side? Totally.

However, none of that helped if some idiot decided to punch him out or someone started shooting. The same thing is true if you find yourself covering a fire that is raging out of control. The law might make you judgment-proof, but it won’t make you fire-proof.

(A fire captain once told me a story about a broadcaster who wanted to do a stand-up in front of a building that was still on fire. He told her not to stand where she wanted to stand and then he left the area. She then immediately went to that spot to do the stand up, only to find that something the firefighters were doing caused several windows to explode outward. She was showered in flaming debris and almost hurt badly.)

This is why good relations between public safety professionals and media members is crucial. I was lucky to know a number of police and fire folks who were good to me over the years when I was a reporter. We respected each other, so when one of them told me, “Stand here” or “Don’t go over there,” I trusted it was for my own good and the good of the integrity of their operation. If I had experienced what the students at The Union experienced, I might have stood elsewhere or went somewhere that could have been dangerous.

I hope that future exchanges between those folks and public safety officers are better, because trust and credibility can make a huge difference when it comes to working together to get both of their jobs done.



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