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Policy change could expand media access.

Byline: Jim Godbold / The Register-Guard

NEWS, BY ITS NATURE, exerts a strong gravitational pull toward the negative - the corrupt cop, the crooked pol, the pedophile priest.

You know the old saw: It's not news that 10,000 planes land safely each day. It's news when one crashes.

We are, to borrow Spiro Agnew's classic media barb, the nattering nabobs of negativism. This glass-is-half-empty mentality is exacerbated by the need for journalists to be professional skeptics, constantly on alert for spin, manipulation and outright deception.

It can be hard to take something at face value when you're instinctively wondering, "What's the angle? What do they really want? Where's the truth?"

Which is why I want to make a special effort today to acknowledge something really positive that has quietly taken shape over the past six months under the auspices of the Eugene Police Commission.

At a time when efforts to restrict the news media's ability to gather information are increasing on multiple fronts nationwide, the Police Commission has recommended revisions to Eugene Police Department policies that potentially increase media access to certain events.

I particularly want to applaud commissioners Bonny Bettman, Munir Katul, Carla Newbre, Floyd Prozanski and Angie Sifuentez, who formed the subcommittee that did the heavy lifting on the new policy recommendations. It was eye-opening and, I daresay, even inspirational to witness the dedication these citizen volunteers brought to a complex and often adversarial process. Sort of a street-level lesson in self-government.

The background: Police actions at some civil disturbances in the summer of 2000 resulted in mass arrests and complaints from protesters that police used excessive force. News media were unable to independently verify protester charges or police denials because EPD ordered media to disperse along with the public.

Reporters and photographers were herded to an area out of sight from the police action. Eugene police said at the time that their policies had no provisions to differentiate between the media and the public. Furthermore, police said, some activists involved in the protest claimed media status, and their presence compromised officer safety.

In October 2001, the Police Commission decided to tackle the media access issue and formed a subcommittee to gather information and make recommendations. Here's what the adventurous committee was up against:

To start with, I'm pretty sure the EPD didn't think its existing media policies needed any substantive revisions. Why would they? For the most part, relations with local news media had been positive, and the existing policies sought to treat all media equally, even to the (from my perspective, absurd) point of allowing any person claiming to be media to be regarded as such.

And, let's face it, revisions to increase media access would potentially limit or reduce existing police discretion at an incident scene.

Add to that the lack of consensus among Eugene's diverse and eclectic media, the very real political differences among the police commissioners themselves, the occasional curve ball from the city attorney's office, and you've got the ingredients for a process that looks to be about as rewarding as a root canal.

But the five commissioners rolled up their sleeves and went to work, meeting twice a month to discuss issues, take public testimony and review media access policies from other jurisdictions. Before they were finished, the committee had heard from numerous members of the local news media, various officials from within the EPD, the ACLU, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Portland Independent Media Center and Tim Gleason, dean of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

The discussions were vigorous, and the topics often complex: Who is a journalist? What is the definition of news media? Could a member of the media also be a "participant" in the protest?

The latter issue was one of those "only in Eugene" Zen riddles that typically prompt explosive laughter in other locales. Never mind about fairness, credibility and impartiality. Or police safety.

This is unadulterated baloney. Why should we care about police impersonating journalists if we don't care about protesters impersonating journalists? If you want police-sanctioned special access to cover the news, then you give up the choice of being a participant in the news event. The two are mutually exclusive.

My pet peeves aside, journalists in Eugene have been well served by the Police Commission's diligent work on media access. News media displaying appropriate identification now may be exempted from orders to disperse and allowed to cover police crowd control actions. That's a dramatic improvement from the current situation.

More significant, language has been added to the main EPD media relations policy that underscores "the importance of the community's right to know about activities involving this department, and the essential role that the media play in providing information to the public."

Let's hope the EPD and City Council agree when they decide the fate of the Police Commission's excellent recommendations.

Jim Godbold is executive editor of The Register-Guard. He can be reached at 338-2413 or by e-mail at jgodbold@guardnet.com.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:May 26, 2002
Words:832
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