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"Yes, I'm a journalist, but I'm also a citizen"
By Jeremy Reynalds
Newsrooms were hopping a week ago in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Word had come down about a shooting and police chase and the requisite news station helicopter coverage.
While one station's helicopter was grounded for maintenance, two of Albuquerque's three network affiliate stations - KOB TV and KRQE TV - provided helicopter coverage.
While KOB's live reports of the chase topped the ratings, it was KRQE that generated all of the controversy; admittedly, not for the station's coverage but over the passenger who was accompanying KRQE pilot/reporter Bob Martin.
With a helicopter apparently unavailable to the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department, upon landing near the crime scene, Martin was asked to take a police officer up with him in the station helicopter and help law enforcement authorities in spotting an alleged fugitive.
Correctly considering it to be a matter of public safety, Martin and his boss, KRQE News Director Dan Salamone, consented to the ride along. While local print media reported that the New Mexico State Police applauded Martin for his role, that wasn't the case for one of the Poynter Institute's for Media Studies (a journalism think tank) senior scholars, Roy Peter Clark.
Clark, whose biography lists him as having a Ph.D. in English and being, among other things, a reporter, feature writer, and film critic, had nothing but harsh words to say about KRQE's actions, telling a local newspaper that police have no business in a news helicopter. He added that it was also a matter of concern to him that some news organizations apparently fail to see a problem with being "a civilian arm of the law."
Not surprisingly, Martin took strong exception to that comment, telling me by e mail, "Yes, I am a journalist, but I am also a citizen. The duties of a citizen and a human being supercede any contrived 'ethical' considerations pontificated about by some professor in some obscure institute, who I suspect has probably never been shot at, never suffered the trauma of having people shot and killed next to you...and likely has never been involved in life or death snap decisions required in the field. I have experienced all these in my work and feel my insight allows me the ability to make an appropriate decision about police assistance."
However, that's not a view shared by everyone. Dave Bossick, a staff writer with the Tuscola County Advertiser in Caro, Mich., didn't agree, telling me by e-mail, "I would be against such use. It's not like the Sheriff's Department couldn't call on the state law enforcement officials for such a helicopter. Yeah, the sheriff's department would have been a little mad, but that's the first place they should have turned. That and the TV station would be liable for anything that turned out wrong. It's plain common sense."
And Ronald Riley, a self-described inventor, entrepreneur, author and journalist responding to a question I posed about this situation on a general journalism discussion list administered by the Society for Professional Journalists, wrote that Martin's "practice endangers all journalists. How long before some criminal shoots a news helicopter down just because it might be helping the police?"
So what really did happen? I felt that it's very easy to be an armchair quarterback, like Clark, and piously pontificate about what Martin should or should not have done, but Clark wasn't there. Martin was. Knowing Martin (having worked with Martin some years ago and seen him in action when I was an intern in the KRQE newsroom) I dropped him a note and asked him to give his side of the story. I wanted you to read in his own words and in context what Martin wrote, so I haven't paraphrased his response. Here is what he wrote me:
"By way of background, I dispatched from the roof upon the very first call. We were in the air within three minutes of the first call about guys with guns in a truck and were on scene about 10 minutes later...after some miscues listening to scanners and the authorities frantically try to figure out where the suspects were likely headed.
"As you recall...there were 7 agencies responding to this extremely remote and violent incident. No law enforcement helicopters were available until after we had found the suspect vehicle driving through a residential neighborhood about 10 road miles away from any law enforcement ground units...and our deputy on board guided the ground units in by radio.
"Unlike Los Angeles or New York, in the deep West, we seldom have a police helicopter available in less than 30 minutes and often it is 1-2 hours to wait for arrival. We just don't have the budgets in our cities for full time helicopters. Certainly not out on remote Indian reservations. Thank goodness...it was the arrival of a non-main-stream law enforcement helicopter from the US Customs service, that finally blocked the suspect's escape route and actually stopped the now-confessed murderer from making an escape and/or killing anyone else.
"We were on scene...and physically able to help. It is in this setting that I was asked to help and immediately agreed...without any discussion or debate.
"The ethics of the situation were extremely clear. We had the only tool in the air at that moment to assist our fellow citizens below...who were in immediate and grave danger. The suspect...who we had an excellent and distinctive description of, and who we knew was heavily armed and had already killed at least one and wounded others...appeared to be on the prowl for more mayhem...and/or escape.
"Both the 911 operator and witnesses (potential victims) in the native communities were also able to watch our live pictures and help in bringing the matter to a conclusion.
"There is a clear line available for any rational human being to discern. That line between the acceptable and the unacceptable in collaboration with authorities. We DON'T take police on patrol in our helicopters to spy on citizens they may suspect of wrongdoing. We DO take police on board to help save human life or health in immediate danger.
"If that professor was in a house with his family and our suspect came there and killed his family...all while I had the opportunity to stop it by helping the police (but didn't)...would that be right? I think not."
Colin Gromatsky, general manager at Las Cruces Radio Station KRWG FM, as well as a college instructor agreed, commenting by e mail on Martin's actions that "Maybe common sense took over and since lives might have been at stake, the reporter decided that this is one time he should help."
I was glad to see that KOB TV's News Director Chris Berg and KOAT News Director Pahl Shipley defended KRQE's actions, telling a local newspaper that if the situation were to come up again that they would do exactly the same thing.
I think that Bob Martin has got it right when he says that the prerequisite for taking police on board a news copter is when human life or health is in immediate danger. As such we should congratulate Martin for his actions.
Now we all know that conservatives have a tendency to bash the "liberal media" nut, but we are not so good in congratulating them when they do right. Let's change our ways and tell Martin that we applaud his actions and right thinking. He may be reached at email@example.com and KRQE News Director Dan Salamone at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeremy Reynalds is a freelance writer and the founder and director of Joy Junction, New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter. He has a master's degree in communication from the University of New Mexico and is pursuing his PhD in intercultural education at Biola University in Los Angeles. He is married with five children and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He may be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
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