the creative economy

Deadliners on journalism and legal rights: At last, a safe place for writers to tackle hot-topic issues

Deadliners on journalism and legal rights: At last, a safe place for writers to tackle hot-topic issues

Austin Photo Set: News_Caitline_deadliners_write by night_jan 2012
Photographers Matthew Rainwaters and Lance Rosenfield with Writer Alex Hannaford. Photo by Alysha Walker Rainwaters

In any city with a creative economy, it's easy to find meet-ups, collectives and series where like-minds can collaborate, discuss and find growth within their profession. The problem, more often than not, is that this type of camaraderie caters mostly to graphic designers, photographers, art directors and so on. What about the writers? The people who are lending the written word to a captured or created image?

Independent journalist Alex Hannaford recognized the need to fill this void for those dedicated to the pen and paper (er, fingers and keyboard) and kicked off an occasional journalism discussion series, Deadliners.

For the inaugural event presented by Write By Night and Professional Writers of Austin, Austin-based photographers Lance Rosenfield and Matt Rainwaters showed photos from assignments in high-security locations: for Rosenfield, it was an assignment given by ProPublica on a Texas City BP refinery that had suffered a deadly explosion and illegal chemical emissions; for Rainwaters, it was an assigment on Guantanamo Bay given by Esquire.

Where Rainwaters was granted entry to Guantanamo Bay, Rosenfield had to complete his assignment from outside refinery bounds, shooting from a public highway — a space completely within his rights. However, he was quickly apprehended by police who then called in Homeland Security. The governmental authorities demanded that he relinquish his camera, telling him, "You're a hair short of being a terrorist."
 The governmental authorities demanded that [Rosenfield] relinquish his camera, telling him, "You're a hair short of being a terrorist."

Upon detainment, he didn't give up the camera, stood for his first amendment rights and quickly got ProPublica's attorneys on the line who, ultimately, cut the assignment short. The decision was to release the photos in order to be freed and turn the developing story over to ProPublica's editors in a timely manner. The following days saw Rosenfeld on CNN and smattered across the web under headlines questioning the legal rights of police.

Rainwaters had to work around limitations of a different sort. While he was allowed access to Gitmo, he was given an extensive list of things that could not appear in photographs, no matter how indistinguishable: no locks, no faces, no reflections, no guard towers with glass, and the list goes on.

Paired with Hannaford on location and on assignment, how would they be able to accurately tell the story of Gitmo with so many obstacles? He too was threatened with photo-deletion, and all shots were fair game for review. In several heated situations between he and Gitmo guards, he conceded that compliance may have been the best policy.

The issues in question during this panel continued to repeat itself: What are the proper chains of command as far as federal security goes, and to what length are legal authorities willing to take action against journalists?

Rosenfeld told the assembled writers that he would've elected to continue to refuse police access to photos had his deadline not been looming. After all, he said, "[The police] didn't have a warrant — in the end that would have been the right thing for me to do."  
"Your personality will take you further than anything else," Rainwaters countered. "Talk in reason, let them know you're not a threat, and then use legal standards more as a last resort. I feel like that’s the simplest solution to the problem."

A roomful of different experiences between panelists and writers eventually gave way to a show of different opinions. One audience member suggested Rosenfield “caved in” by showing his photos to authorities, stating that the press was the last bastion of democracy. Because of Deadliner's open forum, Rosenfield was able to share his different perspective: He had a choice between showing what he knew to be benign photos to the police and then making his deadline, or refusing and then missing the opportunity to publish an important story altogether.

The point of the Deadliners gathering is not to solve problems within an hour. “I don't think the purpose of Deadliners will ever be to give definitive answers to anything, but provide a forum for discussion,” Hannaford tells CultureMap. “[The program] acknowledges very much that there will be people in the audience who can contribute just as much — if not more — to the debate.”

The inaugural event demonstrated a program of this sort could establish itself as a “safe place” for writers to explore contentious issues, agree to disagree and become better journalists for it, as a result. Each person who sat in on the discussion — Rainwaters, Rosenfield and Hannaford included — walked away with someone else’s unique experience, taking that added knowledge to future assignments.
Hannaford plans to continue “talking shop” with local journalists in many different forms — namely, by way of panels, documentary screenings and Q&A sessions. On the upcoming discussion agenda? Two topics that have been super-saturated by media coverage within the past year: border control and wildfires — exploring how media attention and the written word have addressed two vastly different sides of the issue of containment.