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COLUMNISTS

Why senators kicked a reporter out of a public meeting, and 2 solutions

Desert Sage column

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News
The New Mexico Roundhouse on Friday, March 15, 2019.

With less than half of New Mexico's 30-day legislative session remaining, public business was briefly upstaged this week by an unnecessary scrap with a journalist

Rachel Knapp of KRQE-TV was covering a Senate Conservation Committee meeting at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe Thursday when the vice chair, state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, asked Knapp if she had sought permission to film the meeting.

A sign posted outside the room stated that citizens needed permission to record meetings, yet made an exception for news organizations. The sign was subsequently removed, Knapp reported.

The legislature, we should note, was broadcasting the meeting live with its own cameras; however, State Sen. Pat Woods, a member of the committee, protested the presence of Knapp's camera. 

His objection was that her footage could be "spliced and edited to be used against someone" and suggested that lawmakers might be less candid in their deliberations over the hazardous waste bill that was on the agenda. 

There is quite a bit to unpack in Woods' objection, which assumed bad faith. The presumption was that a professional journalist cannot be trusted to record and report about public business, and that elected lawmakers would not be "totally truthful" in their public deliberations if reporters were present. 

Splicing and editing are, of course, essential to a reporter's job, which is to present complex matters of policy and law digestible for readers and viewers along with relevant context. Such independent storytelling is a service that a plain webcast or document cannot offer; and yet, in our time, public trust in that service and in the expertise and standards of journalism are low. 

Under Senate rules and the Open Meetings Act, the committee was permitted to set the restriction. Yet the senators did not stop at turning Knapp's camera off. After a brief and polite exchange, Sedillo Lopez asked Knapp to leave the room altogether. The reporter was not only prevented from doing her job, but deprived of her right, as a member of the public and a constituent, even to watch her own legislators conduct a public meeting. 

For that, Knapp deserves a prominent apology. 

The offense here was not partisan or regional in origin: Woods is a Republican from Broadview, and Sedillo Lopez is an Albuquerque Democrat. 

One solution is simple and was actually introduced before this incident occurred. In January, state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, introduced a resolution amending Senate rules to permit photography, video and audio recordings of committee meetings as a right of the entire citizenry, not just professional news gatherers. It awaits action before the Senate Rules Committee.

Longer term, Woods' comments reflect the contemporary mistrust of journalism as an institution, of how reporters do their job and with what intent. Besides mistrust, some parties are in fact hostile to independent reporting, which is a distinct obstacle.

Sometimes the ubiquity of the internet, social media and the curation of stories by algorithm rather than journalistic judgment are identified as causes of public mistrust; on the other hand, these platforms also give journalists the means to talk with readers about standards and practices and, over time, to build trust through honest and frank interactions with readers. 

This is why, despite deadline pressure, I often respond when readers (well, some of you don't read the stories, but that's another discussion) yell at me on Twitter or email me accusing me of a covert agenda.

Reader feedback has often helped me improve and learn more; in turn I am happy to demystify what we are up to and why we do it. After all, we aren't just news scribblers, but fellow citizens. 

Desert Sage enjoys hearing from readers at adammassa@lcsun-news.com.Yell at him on Twitter at @AlgernonWrites.

For more opinion by local writers, subscribe to the Las Cruces Sun-News today.

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