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Georgia case is powerful argument for keeping crime scene photos public

9 Oct

A case involving the death of a 17-year-old Georgia student athlete should offer great insight as Connecticut lawmakers as they consider whether crime scene photos should be public documents in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last year in Newtown.

In June, the Connecticut General Assembly voted to make all police murder scene photos and video exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Parents and family of the 26 Sandy Hook victims had urged the change, fearing that out-of-state online news outlets or websites would publish graphic images from them.

Media and First Amendment advocates argued that responsible news outlets never do this, and that such records must be public as a key safeguard against abuse of police and government power.

Well, in the Georgia case, CNN obtained photos of the death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson. They didn’t publish them, but they did bring them to experts who contradicted a medical examiner’s office report and police decision that the death was accidental. Police are still insisting the case is closed, but I’d bet this is going to be the start of a murder investigation. If Georgia had exempted these kinds of photos from the Freedom of Information Act, someone would have gotten away with murder.

Partisan heckling mars rally against gun violence

14 Feb

In Hartford for an unrelated meeting Thursday, I took the opportunity to check out the “March for Change” rally in support of stricter gun control laws on the steps of the Capitol building.

Nicole  Hockley holding a photograph of her son  Dylan Hockley, 6, who was a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting by gunman Adam Lanza December 14, 2012 stands with the crowd listening to speakers at the March For Change anti-gun rally at the State Capitol Thursday, February 14, 2013 in Hartford,Connecticut urging legislators in Connecticut and Washington to enact strict gun control and a total ban on  rifles and handguns with capacities of using magazine that hold more than 10-rounds.  State legislators and families of victims of the Newtown Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, shootings in urban Bridgeport and Hartford,  among others, spoke at the rally. According to Capitol Police, approximately 5,500 people attended the rally, many of whom were bused in from around Connecticut.  Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

Nicole Hockley holding a photograph of her son Dylan Hockley, 6, who was a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting by gunman Adam Lanza December 14, 2012, stands with the crowd listening to speakers at the March For Change anti-gun rally at the State Capitol Thursday, February 14, 2013 in Hartford. Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

The gathering was remarkable due to its size (Capitol Police estimated the crowd at 5,500), roster of speakers (Gov. Dannel Malloy, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, Attorney General George Jepsen, actress Christine Baranski and many others) and moving words from family members of those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14.

The turnout was significant, in part, because of the edge that opponents of any new gun control measure have had in pressuring members of the Connecticut General Assembly. Gun rights enthusiasts dominated an all-day hearing in Hartford recently sponsored by a legislative task force looking at post-Newtown public policy issues. Merrill told the crowd that legislators have been getting emails 10-to-1 against new gun restrictions even though polls have shown that the majority of people support more gun control. She urged the “silent majority” to start speaking up.

But there was at least one man in the crowd at Thursday’s rally who should have stayed silent.

In addition to the parade of prominent Democratic lawmakers speaking at the rally, Republican state Sen. John McKinney took the podium. He was not treated with the same respect.

John McKinney

John McKinney

McKinney represents Newtown and was in the firehouse that day, waiting with families on word of whether their children were dead or alive.

He talked about how that day changed his live and changed his perspective on issues.

McKinney was not allowed to complete his remarks as prepared. He was interrupted by a chant of “Pass the law! Pass the law!”

And then a man from the crowd (likely the same person who launched the chanting) started heckling him, with words I couldn’t make out, other than at one point where he yelled that McKinney should get off the stage.

The only reason I can think that McKinney would be interrupted and heckled at this rally is the political party he belongs to. If that was why, it was a mind-boggling and self-defeating injection of partisanship into an issue that should transcend party (and really seems to in McKinney’s mind).

Gun control advocates should do what the gun rights crowd failed to do when one of their own was guilty of a major breach of civility and respect in discussing this issue.  They should condemn and cast out those who use the issue to score political points or be nasty. And they should reach out to Sen. McKinney, a major potential ally, with an apology (if they haven’t already done so privately).

Protecting journalists is about protecting democracy, open government

15 Jan

Basic health and safety is something we should be able to take for granted arriving for work each day.
We expect no less for the reporters, photographers and editors who help us bring you the news each day.
So it is with great concern that we call attention to the assault of a young reporter outside the Middlesex County Courthouse in Middletown on Monday. She was there just trying to do her job – reporting on a bomb threat at a local school that sparked fear and chaos in the wake of the mass shooting last month in Newtown.
For that, she was shoved to the ground, from behind, and had to be taken to the hospital for evaluation.
Connecticut State Police have since arrested the father of the young man accused in the bomb threat case and charged him with assault.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time something like this has happened to a journalist in The Middletown Press. In fact, it happened earlier this year on that same sidewalk when someone shoved one of our photographers, grabbed her camera and spit on her. She was there to cover the case of a local man accused of stabbing alpacas at a local farm a sex assault trial.
It’s been a difficult and at times scary few months for our journalists in Connecticut. We were working around the clock, under makeshift conditions, and out in the darkness and rain to keep readers connected to emergency information during Hurricane Sandy.
And then we confronted something a million times worse in covering the Newtown shooting and the funeral after funeral that followed for victims who reminded us of our own children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Our reporters and photographers press on in the face of insults, constant second-guessing and critique, and anger from those who do not want a light aimed at their situation.
The Journal News, a daily newspaper across the border in New York, recently hired security guards to protect its journalists from death threats in the wake of its decision to publish a list of all gun permit holders in its coverage area.
Media organizations are far from perfect, and much has been written questioning the wisdom and rationale behind that newspaper’s gun list. But we’d urge people who speak up for gun rights from a “keep government power in check” standpoint to reflect on our country’s most powerful weapon against unlimited government power. It’s the free flow of information about what the government is doing – the kind of work our journalists in Middletown do in covering the police and courts, and although arguably misguided in this case, the Journal News’ use of the Freedom of Information Act.
We applaud the Connecticut State Police for taking the assault on our reporter seriously on Monday and making an arrest. A crime was committed, of course, and they did their job to enforce the law. But they also recognized, implicitly, that reporter’s place alongside police, prosecutor, judge and defense attorney in the process of delivering justice and protecting the public’s interest.

A newspaper company comes together to cover Newtown

23 Dec

There will be a lot more to say – at some point – about what has been both the worst and best week of our careers in journalism. Our main concern right now is to make sure that the rest of the story of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and its aftermath is told. That’s going to take quite some time, and quite a bit more effort and resources. And to make sure that the people on our team, after nine days of interviewing witnesses to unspeakable horror and covering 6-year-olds’ funerals, are dealing with their own grief and trauma.

But I wanted to pause and take note of how remarkable it was for us to see our entire company come together to help us cover this story. More than 100 journalists have been involved in the New Haven Register’s Newtown coverage over the past week, including 55 reporters, 17 photographers and 10 main editors on the ground in Connecticut contributing to our coverage.702194314 A number of Register reporters and editors worked straight through from first word of the shooting Friday morning to the editing of the story about the final funeral eight days later.

Digital First Media sent 29 reporters and eight photographers from 17 different daily newspapers in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Colorado and Connecticut, including a team of six from the Denver Post, six from the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania and five from the Lowell Sun in Massachusetts.

The company’s national news office, “Thunderdome,” sent five reporters, five editors, two web producers and a video specialist, and devoted more than a dozen others to help from afar on editing, web production, data and interactives.

And throughout, we had access, advice and assistance from company leaders who’d unfortunately done this before.

Jim McClure, editor of the York Daily Record and East Region editor for Digital First, organized the influx of support from out-of-town journalists for us and was on the ground in Connecticut drawing on his experience covering a 2001 machete attack on a Pennsylvania elementary school. Photographer Tom Kelly IV of the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., came with experience covering the Nickel Mines Amish elementary school shooting in 2006.

Helping at our makeshift newsroom just outside of Newtown this past week was Mike Topel, national editor at Digital First Media’s Thunderdome office in New York. He helped lead the AP’s coverage of Columbine in 1999.

706117785Frank Scandale, Digital First’s vice president of print production, helped lead the Denver Post’s Columbine coverage as metro editor. He offered advice from afar and then arrived in New Haven mid-week to help plan a special print edition encapsulating more than a week’s worth of coverage for the Sunday newspaper.

And we were also able to turn to Denver Post Editor Greg Moore, who led intense coverage of the Aurora movie theater shooting earlier this year, and Digital First Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady, who was leading WashingtonPost.Com during the Virginia Tech massacre.