Police in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, have used the aftermath of mass shootings to clamp down on press access and have threatened to violate the press freedom rights of journalists doing their jobs. According to recent reporting by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, as tragedy unfolded in each of these cities, reporters have faced unnecessary hurdles erected by law enforcement and public officials, with some going as far as warning the reporters will be arrested.
Nearly two weeks before the Uvalde school shooting, a gunman killed 10 people in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket. Los Angeles Times reporter Connor Sheets said he was in Conklin, New York, a few days after the shooting when Sheriff’s deputies escorted him away from the alleged shooter's high school. The next day, deputies demanded that he also leave the school district’s central office and once again escorted him away from the building. "This restriction of media access seems to be part of the post-mass-shooting playbook," Sheets wrote in a tweet.
“These kinds of practices limit access to public information and can make it harder for journalists to do their jobs,” Sheets told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
Sheets’s reference to a “playbook” is salient — this can’t be written off as the missteps of a particular agency or official, given the similar events we’ve seen in Uvalde:
[O]n June 1, a CNN crew visited the Uvalde school district headquarters, where police officers told the journalists they were trespassing and threatened to arrest them if they stepped back on the property. Correspondent Shimon Prokupecz recorded the interaction with Producer Matthew Friedman and posted the video on Twitter.
On June 3, the Texas Tribune reported that Uvalde City Hall locked its doors during regular business hours and refused to “immediately provide any public records to reporters.” According to the Tribune, the move came as residents and journalists aim to hold Pete Arredondo, the chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department, accountable for waiting more than an hour for backup instead of immediately ordering officers to charge the gunman inside Robb Elementary School.
And in an op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News, journalist Michael Drudge cataloged some of the same behavior from public officials:
Adding to the problems journalists face is a virtual news blackout on the part of state and local authorities.
Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez represents Uvalde. He’s been a high-profile news source with contacts inside the Texas Department of Public Safety. He revealed Friday that a DPS official told him Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee ordered DPS not to release any more information to the senator or the public. The Associated Press reported Friday the DPS referred all questions to Busbee, who did not return phone calls and text messages from the Associated Press.
Unfortunately, the pattern encompasses even more examples over the course of several weeks. In the wake of a horrifying event, when the facts and truth are of critical importance, police and public representatives are interfering with crucial reporting.
Especially given the profound public questions about the actions of the Uvalde police and their role in the shooting, and the department’s constantly shifting stories about what actually took place, it’s essential that journalists are able to find answers. Interference with reporters doing their jobs is never OK for police. But in this case, it is absolutely unacceptable.