NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · LOUISIANA · Newsgathering · July 25, 2006
FEMA boots reporters, then revises media policy
July 25, 2006 · Less than a week after Federal Emergency Management Agency security guards told reporters who were interviewing Louisiana residents in FEMA trailers to leave, the agency has reversed course and revised its policy.
The incident, reported July 15 by The Advocate in Baton Rouge, sparked protest among journalists after FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Rodi told the newspaper: “If a resident invites the media to the trailer, they have to be escorted by a FEMA representative who sits in on the interview . . . . That’s just policy.”
In a July 11 e-mail message to The Advocate reporter who encountered the access problem, Rodi cited a “Media Protocol for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Group Sites.” Among the six points in the half-page policy is that once onsite, “media may enter residents’ trailers if they are invited by the residents to do so.” But, the policy did not address whether FEMA personnel will accompany reporters.
The revised policy, released Tuesday, allows media unescorted access to the trailer parks, lets the media interview residents, and, if invited, enter residents’ trailers. If a public information officer is not available, that cannot be used as a reason to deny access to the trailer park, according to the policy.
On Monday, Pat Philbin, FEMA communications director in Washington, D.C., said the agency’s original policy was either interpreted incorrectly or taken too literally.
“I think it’s quite frankly the staff person down in the Gulf region. I don’t think she understood the intent of the policy,” Philbin said. The policy, along with the posting of security guards at FEMA trailer parks, was designed to protect residents from privacy invasion and door-to-door solicitors, he said.
However, Philbin later on Monday said there was not a national policy on news media access to FEMA trailer parks, and whatever policy might exist would have been made by local officials.
The Advocate‘s story reported that several trailer parks set up as relief housing following Hurricane Katrina have not been used. The problems occurred in Plaquemines Parish, where 242 new trailers sit empty, and in Lake End Trailer Park in St. Mary Parish with 183 vacant trailers.
During an interview earlier this month in a resident’s Lake End trailer, a FEMA guard told a reporter, “You are not allowed to be here,” and “Get out right now,” the newspaper reported.
The guard also told the reporter that the resident was “not allowed” to have her business card.
Later in the same day, the guard interrupted a roadside interview between a reporter and another resident through a chain-link fence.
“These journalists are attempting to access public property, in broad daylight, and to speak with consenting residents of a trailer park paid for with federal tax dollars. We fail to see how such journalism is anything but the very sort of newsgathering for which the First Amendment was created,” said SPJ’s letter from President David E. Carlson and Charles Davis, Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman.
Advocate Executive Editor Linda Lightfoot is pleased with the reaction.
“I am just so glad with the reaction we’ve had that shows people really are concerned that when you write in the paper a person can’t talk to the media,” Lightfoot said.
She criticized FEMA’s written policy on media access as vague.
“It’s clear that’s its discretionary with FEMA whether to even let media in,” she said.
James Stark, the director of FEMA’s Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office, said in a letter to the editor which ran in The Advocate Saturday, that the Privacy Act protects trailer park residents from the news media.
“Under the Privacy Act, FEMA is required to balance one resident’s right to privacy and preference not to be approached by the media in their home with another’s willingness to openly express themselves to members of the press,” Stark wrote.
But the act, passed in 1974, does not apply to the media, but rather government officials in regard to personnel and other records the government keeps on employees and other individuals.
Stark denied FEMA policies restrict residents from speaking with reporters or require a FEMA representative to be present during news media interviews.
Philbin said that the Privacy Act is not at issue.
“I think it was more of a concern of trying to help the residents, it’s not a Privacy Act concern,” he said.
Philbin also said the agency does not want to stifle press access. “There are no First Amendment concerns here. The only concern FEMA has is for security of residents.
“There is nothing in our policy which would preclude any resident from talking with a reporter or a reporter from talking with any resident,” he said. Press should be able to show their credentials to the security at a trailer park and then be allowed in.
The new policy will be sent to FEMA spokesmen in the Gulf area, Philbin said.