Ruts On The Information Highway
Sometimes it feels like 2020 is simply a doomed year.
We started off with a global pandemic that’s threatened our health, devastated our economy and upended virtually every aspect of our lives. Then, in September, wildfires tore through a number of communities in our region, destroying nearly 3,000 homes and businesses and displacing thousands of families. Several members of our staff were evacuated for extended periods of time, but fortunately, none of them lost their homes.
As if that weren’t enough, last month one of our reporters covering the dismantling of a homeless camp in Medford’s Hawthorne Park was arrested for attempting to report on interactions between Medford Police and campers in the park.
These last two events raise broader issues for our organization, our listeners and our community.
The Almeda Fire
The Almeda Fire started in an Ashland neighborhood and was fanned by unusually high summer winds. Within the blink of an eye, the fire shot up the I-5 corridor and the Bear Creek Greenway destroying large swaths of the towns of Talent and Phoenix. One Jackson County Sheriff’s Deputy evacuating residents told me that winds moved the fire so quickly that evacuation routes changed within minutes and some people found themselves evacuating directly into the path of new fires. During the first few hours after the fire started, our news department persistently tried to reach public safety agencies so that we could provide information to our listeners. It turned out to be impossible to reach anyone who could give us that information. If things were as bad as we feared, we expected officials would activate the Emergency Alert System (EAS), a system that allows emergency managers to interrupt our signals immediately and use them to convey essential life-saving information to the public. We test this system frequently, as do all other broadcasters, to make sure it functions when it’s needed. But no public safety official ever activated this system.
The day that followed the fire, we found numerous voicemail messages from listeners desperately seeking information during the previous evening about whether they should evacuate and if so, where they should go to stay safe. Many of these messages shared a common theme: “We don’t have cell phone service or access to the Internet and we don’t know what to do … we’re listening to JPR for information but don’t hear anything … please help us!” Some of these messages were heart-wrenching. Exactly why Jackson County emergency managers did not activate the EAS remains unclear. Perhaps they were relying too heavily on the opt-in emergency notification system that delivers text messages to cell phones. After the fire, Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler made a statement indicating that he believed if an EAS alert was broadcast people would have evacuated all at once clogging roads and hampering the evacuation effort. While it’s easy to second guess these kinds of decisions, it’s hard to believe that a calm, fact-based message conveying who should, and equally important, who should not evacuate, would have made the situation worse. We hope a comprehensive post-incident analysis of the emergency response to the Almeda Fire by public safety agencies will be conducted and that it will include the input of broadcasters which continue to provide a critical link to citizens during public emergencies. Here at JPR, we are also engaged in an internal evaluation of our own monitoring systems, technical infrastructure and operating protocols so that we can take steps to improve our response to future public emergencies in partnership with public safety agencies.
JPR Reporter Arrested
On September 22nd, JPR reporter April Ehrlich was arrested by the Medford Police Department as she attempted to cover the removal of homeless campers from Medford’s Hawthorne Park. The department was acting under an ordinance that allows public facilities to be temporarily closed for maintenance and to provide “sanitation, cleaning, and inspection of City property” according to a spokesman. But the action was not only about sanitation, it was about evicting unhoused people from the park and April was there to observe and report on how that was being done. Medford Police directed April to a “media staging area” where it was not possible to adequately see or hear interactions between police officers and campers, or gather audio. April continued to do her work and was arrested for second-degree criminal trespassing, interfering with a peace officer and resisting arrest. After spending a long day in the Jackson County Jail, April was released on bail later that afternoon.
While I would never have asked April, or any of our reporters, to take such a stand to defend her First Amendment rights as a journalist, I’m proud of the resolve and courage she exhibited to do her job on behalf of citizens. In condemning April’s arrest, the Oregon Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists wrote: “Requiring journalists to work from a government-approved staging area where they are unable to observe police actions or talk to people in a public park falls far short of the right of press freedom enshrined in the First Amendment. Journalists should not face arrest for simply doing their jobs, which include observing the conduct of public officials and law enforcement officers in public places and reporting those actions to the communities they serve.” I agree. The Medford Police Department made a choice that day. It could have asked its officers to do their best work in the park -- to rise to the highest standards of community policing – to treat campers with dignity, respect and professionalism – to direct them to resources to obtain help -- and to work constructively and transparently with members of the press to document interactions between police and campers for the public. Instead, it appears the department directed officers to make sure the press didn’t “get in the way” and to make an example of any reporter that didn’t comply with their orders. How did the police treat campers in Hawthorne Park that day? We don’t know because April Ehrlich was in jail, and every other media report I saw came from a staging area where it was impossible to get the real story.
Each week, nearly 100,000 people rely on JPR as a trusted source of information. Getting you that information is not always easy. Yet, despite obstacles, we recognize that accurate, reliable information is a precious resource, both to the safety and well-being of our community and the health of our democracy.