Friday, February 10, 2006

Public Domain and what it means to journalists

Today was interesting.

See, Friday means deadlines, which, because I'm an incorrigible procrastinator, means a last-minute scramble to crank out my copy and photos for the week. It's normally a quiet day - more about the quiet tapping of the keyboard than the frantic in-and-out-of-the-car news-hounding that characterizes the rest of the week.

That said, news doesn't sleep - as long as the clock keeps ticking, things are happening, so it becomes a way of life to drop what you're doing and go cover something.

So it was no surprise that our sports reporter and a good friend of mine, Leigh, got a call saying that a boom lift had fallen off a flatbed truck.

He leaped from his desk, thrust my camera bag into my hands, and told me to get my coat.

"Boom lift tipped over," he said, "I'll drive."

Seconds later, I leaped from the still-moving (albeit not very fast) car and raced across the busy street.

Two grubby guys were wandering around, obviously trying to figure out how to get this monstrous machine back onto their truck.

Observing proper etiquette, I waved and said "hi" in hopes of revealing my presence. They ignored me, so I started shooting.

About 20 frames later, the two men, who refused to comment or to give their names, asked me exactly who I was or what I was doing. So, I gave my name and the paper I worked for. And then, something interesting happened.

"You shouldn't print anything until you get your facts straight," said Green-Shirt. Is that a fact? I thought. I should think it's pretty obvious what happened - the boom lift somehow fell off your parked truck and is now on its side. But, I decided I'd bite and play along.

"Okay," I say with a grin. "Could you tell me what happened?"

"I'm not at liberty to say that," says Green-shirt. His buddy was standing a few feet away, hefting something heavy and menacing.

"Alright. So do you want me to stop?" I ask affably.

"Yes. I'd prefer you did," Green-shirt says. Fair enough. I thanked them for their time, and headed back to the car, snapping a few more pictures.

These guys were understandably embarrassed - whether it was their fault or not, cargo they were charged with transporting had perpetrated an unanticipated egress of the carrier. Naturally they didn't want their cockup plastered all over the front page.

This brings up an interesting point for journalists.

Sometimes people don't want their picture taken. Sometimes people don't want journalists to take pictures of what they're doing. And sometimes people feel they have a legal right to tell us not to do our job.

This, of course, puts us at the center of journalism's one big quandary - we're torn between not being jerks, and doing our job. Sometimes you can do one or the other, but not both.

Luckily, we have the issue of the Public Domain.

Basically, anything you can see from public property is public domain. For instance, something you can see from a sidewalk, or in a vacant lot, or from your car, are all public domain. You can basically take all the pictures you want without fear.

Places like private homes, offices, schools, and museums are private areas, and therefore permission must be granted before you can take a picture.

In places like courthouses, photography is prohibited by law, which means big trouble. Leave the camera at home.

It should be noted that permission should generally asked when taking pictures in the public domain, just for the sake of politeness. Remember, if you snap a picture of someone even when they ask you not to, you may find yourself at a loss should you have to interview that same person for a story.

We're journalists - we have a job to do - but we're also members of the community. Why make enemies?


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