The Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office's complaints about media behavior during the McKinney Fire have drawn the attention of First Amendment andpress rights advocates around the state, whosaid the sheriff is attempting to intimidate news outlets.
The Sheriff's Office has posted on Facebook twice this month that the media has abused a law that grants the media access to fires and disaster areas.
The McKinney Fire, which broke out July 29 about 15 miles west of Yreka, has burned more than 60,000 acres, destroyed 185 structures and killed four people.
California wildfire update:McKinney Fire doesn't grow; containment rises to 80% in Klamath National Forest
In his Facebook posts, the sheriff said that among other abuses, a television news crew brought an unauthorized person past a road closure checkpointand into the fire. The crew alsotrespassed onto property that had not been searched for possibly dead or injured residents, the sheriff said.
The sheriff's first news release was posted Aug. 2 with an image that said "Media Access" in large type. The second post was Aug. 8 and included a photo illustration that said "Continued Media Abuse."
"Working with the media is very important to us and we have done our best to more than accommodate them, but this behavior is only fueling distrust of media," Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue's second post says.
"I’d like the public to know we are actively investigating complaints of the media’s conduct during the McKinney Fire. I am in communication with the District Attorney’s Office about these allegations, and once our investigation is complete, we will be submitting it to the district attorney," the post says.
The Aug. 8 press release listed news outlets that allegedly violated laws pertaining to the media's right to cover disasters. Those listed included ABC News,KRCR News Channel 7 in Redding, CBS News,KDRV News Channel 12 in Medford, Oregon, and theLos Angeles Times.
David Loy, legal director for the First Amendment Coalition, said he was struck by what he called the "intimidating" tone of LaRue's posts.
"I've never heard personally of this level of animosity, of this level of hostility and aggression from law enforcement towardmedia," Loy said.
"The second press release in particular says 'we have learned and continue to learn' of the various incidents, but gives no specific facts, gives no specific times, places, dates and makes unsubstantiated allegationsthey're investigating five different outlets of different publications," Loy said.
The California Penal Code allows the media to access disaster areas, including fires, where the general public is otherwise forbidden to enter.
An ABC News crew did post a story online in which it appeared a woman not working as a journalist was brought into the fire. That story was aired before the sheriff's first Facebook post.
The sheriff's first post did not name the outlet that brought a non-journalist into the fire and allegedly trespassed with the ABC News crew.
The second post, however, listedfive news outlets that allegedly continued to violateaccess laws.
"Over the past week we have learned, and continue to learn of media bringing unauthorized people into the restricted evacuation zone, trespassing on private property, and disturbing the scenes of burned homes where law enforcement had not yet searched for human remains," the Aug. 8 post says.
Related:McKinney Fire containment grows to 75%; many evacuation orders, warnings lowered
Both KRCR TV and the Los Angeles Times said this week they hadn't been contacted bythe Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office.
Teansie Garfield, general manager at KRCR, issued a statement Monday saying the station disputes the sheriff's claims. She said KRCRreporters have followed all rules regarding access.
"We also respect the privacy of those families who have suffered losses due to the fire. We have reached out to the Siskiyou County sheriff and his office six times today to get information about the allegations. We are waiting to hear back," Garfield said.
She said Wednesday the news station still had not heard from the Sheriff's Office.
Hillary Manning, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Times, said Wednesday the paper had not heard anything more from the sheriff other than what was posted on Facebook.
While reporting on the segment for ABC News with the woman who was not a journalist, its crews came across a body at a home destroyed in the fire.
An ABC News spokesman issued a statement Thursday that said, “Officials gave ABC News permission to cross the fire line. A resident gave us permission to be on the property where the house had burned down. … As soon as the residents discovered the body, our team notified law enforcement.”
Previous coverage:Siskiyou sheriff investigating media conduct during McKinney Fire
The Record Searchlight attempted to reach LaRue on Thursday, but the person who answered the phone at the Sheriff's Office said LaRue, as well as the undersheriff, were out of the office this week.She said, however, she would forward a message to LaRue.
Loy said considering the tone of the sheriff's news releases, he wondered whether LaRue was angry at the media over some other news coverage of his department.
"I doubt very seriously that they (Sheriff's Office) issuepress releases every time they investigate somebody. Law enforcement investigates people, collects evidence, and they submit it to the district attorney.They don't issue a press release every time they do that. He wentout of his way to issue two press releasescalling out the pressspecifically, which suggests strongly that he has a personal beef with the press as such."
Adam Rose, press rights chairman for the Los Angeles Press Club, said his organization also is "keenly interested" in what is happening with the Siskiyou sheriff. While the sheriff is at the opposite end of the state from his group, his actions could have an effect statewide.
Read more:Klamath National Forest fire lookout among those who died in McKinney Fire
While the sheriff said not all media that covered the fire violated access laws, Rose said the news releasesappeared to lump several news organizations under the heading of "the media."
He said doing that can erode the credibility of all news organizations,especially those not named by the sheriff.
Rose said the public needs to trust the media because there are larger issues at stake in the media's coverage of fires and other disasters.
In light of the danger posed by fires throughout the state, residents need to be informed about the imminent danger posed by those emergencies and the government's ability to adequately deal with them, he said.
"At the end of the day, from a press rights perspective, everything boils down to the ability of the press to do its job. And that job, importantly, is to keep the public informed about matters of great public interest, especially when it comes to fire safety," Rose said.
Reporters and photographers from the Record Searchlight and the USA TODAY Network have covered fires and other disasters in California and the West for decades and are trained to know the rules about access to restricted areas, Silas Lyons, executive editor for Northern/Central California and Nevada, said earlier this month.
Photographers and reporters from the USA TODAYNetwork havebeen covering the McKinney Fire for the Record Searchlight, Siskiyou Daily News and Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers since it ignited July 29.
“USA TODAYNetwork journalists are thoroughly trained and experienced professionals who cooperate with authorities on access during public safety emergencies. They respect and do not enter private property and restricted areas,” Lyons said.
Damon Arthur is the Record Searchlight’s resources and environmentreporter. He is part of ateam of journalists who investigate wrongdoing and find the unheard voices to tell the stories of the North State. He welcomes story tips at 530-338-8834 by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at@damonarthur_RS. Help local journalism thrive bysubscribing today!