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Journalists barred from Oklahoma bridge cleanup site

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    NMU         OKLAHOMA         Newsgathering         May 30, 2002    

Journalists barred from Oklahoma bridge cleanup site

  • Photographers and reporters, including one placed in handcuffs, blamed the inexperience of small-town law officials for series of obstacles blocking the reporting of a bridge collapse that killed at least 14 people.

After a barge struck the I-40 bridge near Webbers Fall, Okla., on May 26, journalists descending upon the small town suddenly faced a series of obstacles in covering the disaster.

For example:

  • Police handcuffed a reporter for The Oklahoman and took her to the police station without explanation two days after the accident.
  • Law enforcement officers threatened two Associated Press reporters with arrest at least four times, while others warned Tulsa television reporters about filming near a public road.
  • The Tulsa Medical Examiner’s Office barred a Texas television reporter from public land and threatened with arrest.

Overall, reporters and photographers on the scene have been treated like “enemy number one,” according to Sue Hale, executive editor of The Oklahoman.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating even admitted on May 29 that police went too far in restricting access to the site and information about victims, noting that the town’s mayor offered an apology after the handcuffing of reporter Sheila Stogsdill.

While walking in a nonrestricted public park roughly a mile from the bridge, the stringer reporter for The Oklahoman was threatened by a Tulsa medical examiner and handcuffed by a Webbers Falls police officer. Although officials never told Stogsdill what crime she was suspected of committing, they detained her at a nearby police station.

Stogsdill said that at the station Mayor Jewell Horne immediately reprimanded the officers and broke down into tears saying “this should not have happened” and insisted upon Stogsdill’s release.

The officers apologized to Stogsdill, but general hostility toward the news media in the community continued.

Brett Shipp, a Dallas television station reporter, was told to leave the river area by a local medical examiner and a group of National Guardsmen. Shipp’s station recorded him on tape saying, “I will go to jail if I have to.”

The examiner replied, “You will probably have to.”

Hale said Webbers Falls, a small township near Tulsa, might be intimidated by the surge of national media attention.

“It’s a small town, and they’ve never had anything like this before; they are overwhelmed with so much media in the area,” she said.

T.D. Morgan, chief of police for a nearby station that supplied officers to the scene, said he does not feel like he has any responsibility to speak to the media or allow them access to the area.

“And I tell my men not to talk to the reporters at all, either,” Morgan said.

Stogsdill said she felt “more like they were told to run us off.”

This apparent intimidation has gotten to the point at which newsgathering is being stifled. When photographers appear on the site, for example, National Guardsmen and cleanup crews were told to stop their efforts temporarily to hinder photo opportunities.

“All of the men are told to stop their work, making it pointless to take a picture because they are just standing,” Hale said.

Reporters and photographers have even been discriminated against by being refused service at Webbers Falls restaurant, “simply because they were news media,” said Stogsdill.

The Oklahoman is not pursuing legal action for access or in defense of their reporter, but is negotiating with the officers in what reporters and editors hope will be “a great learning process for them.”


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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