Justin Smith, the County Sheriff of Larimer County, is continuing to restrict media coverage of the High Park fire west of Fort Collins, Colorado. On June 11 we covered Sheriff Smith’s request that the media not show photos of destroyed homes out of respect to the homeowners. That request was generally ignored by news outlets.
Nick Christensen, executive officer for the sheriff’s department, was quoted recently as saying, “Our philosophy is the citizens need to see the damage and destruction before the general public.”
Sheriff Smith claims he can decide what the media can cover and what they can’t cover, and not just for the safety of the reporters. That is a great deal of power to put in the hands of a county sheriff.
Colorado law puts the county sheriff in charge of fires on state and private land in unincorporated areas if the fire exceeds the capacity of a single fire department. Other states see it differently, putting an agency that specializes in fire suppression in charge of fires. Texas also has an archaic system, and puts a County Judge in charge of fires in some areas.
Here are some excerpts from a June 20 AP story about Sheriff Smith’s restrictions on media coverage:
…Journalists say the Colorado restrictions are too strict and hurt their ability to report.
“I’m sympathetic to their desire to help the victim,” said Joey Bunch, a reporter for The Denver Post. “I’m not sympathetic to their desire to control what’s going on.”
Bunch, a 27-year-veteran who has covered numerous natural disasters, said the Larimer sheriff’s restrictions are “the most concerted effort I’ve seen to get between the press and the victims.”
At some previous wildfires in Colorado and in other states, authorities have escorted news media into evacuation zones before residents or the general public was allowed in, sometimes while the fire is still active.
With the current fire, “They’re robbing the victims of the chance to tell their story,” Bunch said. “The larger public isn’t being able to fully appreciate the size of the fire and the size of the tragedy because the story isn’t being told.”
Fire management teams routinely try to get journalists safe access to fires to get the news out, said Mike Ferris, a public information officer for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
“Generally, I’ll do everything I can to get you access to get your story,” he said.
Rules for media access vary from state to state and even from wildfire to wildfire. In California, state law allows news organizations virtually unfettered access to fires. Other states leave the decisions up to the agency responsible for the land involved…
…In one incident, the sheriff’s department withheld for 24 hours a video recording, made by a fire official inside the evacuation zone using an NBC News camera and tape. NBC News producer Jack Chesnutt said he thought he would get the tape back immediately to share with other news outlets.
Christensen, the sheriff’s executive officer, said the department always intended to show the video to evacuated residents before returning it.
“These are not the conditions that I thought we had agreed to when we handed them the camera,” Chesnutt said. He called the High Park Fire coverage restrictions “unprecedented.”…
Thanks go out to Paul and Dick