Charles Davis, National Freedom of Information Co-Chairman, (573) 882-5736, firstname.lastname@example.org
Beth King, Communications Manager, (317) 927-8000, ext. 211, email@example.com
After intense pressure from the Society ofProfessional Journalists and state lawmakers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has rewritten its media relations policy concerning Katrina victims living in FEMA-funded trailer parks. The new policy allows residents to speak with the media without having an agency representative present. Also, members of the media must request credentials before entering the parks.
A story published July 15 in the Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate detailed FEMA’s outrageous policies and practices that prohibited residents of agency-run housing from speaking to the media. SPJ National President David Carlson and SPJ National Freedom of Information Co-Chairman Charles Davis sent a letter to FEMA director David R. Paulison outlining concerns with FEMA’s media relations policy. The letter stated in part:
“We are outraged by the arrogance and contempt for public discourse on display in Louisiana a year after FEMA’s performance in the wake of Katrina earned it widespread criticism. Now FEMA is banning reporters from public property, even as the reporters try to provide scrutiny of the agency. These journalists are attempting to access public property, in broad daylight, and to speak with consenting residents of a trailer park paid for with federal tax dollars. We fail to see how such journalism is anything but the very sort of newsgathering for which the First Amendment was created.
We request that your office review the constitutionality of any policy that dictates when and how those affected by FEMA’s work may speak to the press. Denying citizens access to the news media unless they are joined by FEMA “minders” raises troubling constitutional issues. Receipt of FEMA aid should not mean that citizens leave their constitutional rights behind.
The residents of the region — who have suffered so mightily — surely deserve nothing less than the freedom to tell their stories.”
In response to the letter, Louisiana Congressmen Bobby Jindal, R-Kenner; Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville; and Charles W. Boustany, R-Lafayette backed SPJ’s position, prompting FEMA to change its policy.
In a July 26 Advocate story, Davis said he was pleased with the outcome, but not surprised FEMA changed its policy.
“I am heartened that FEMA at least acknowledged the absurdity of the policy,” Davis said. “I’m also really glad the citizens can now speak to the media.”
The new policy states:
MEDIA PROTOCOL FOR FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY (FEMA) GROUP SITES
The following policies are in effect for media entrance to FEMA group sites.
All site management and security staff should familiarize themselves with
these policies. While FEMA makes every effort to accommodate media
requests, the following protocol must be followed. Public Information
Officer (PIO) presence is required at all media events on group sites.
1. All media requesting entry into a FEMA mobile home or travel trailer
group site must have credentials identified them as official media.
2. To ensure that proper notifications and entry procedures are
coordinated, all media requesting access to a FEMA group site should contact
the FEMA News Desk to provide notice of their intended visit.
3. When Media arrives at Group Site entry point, responsible security
officer should sign them in, provide an access pass and media guidance, then
allow unescorted entry to the site.
4. Security Officers should notify the responsible Public Affairs News
Desk or Public Information Officer of media arrival at the site.
5. At no time will FEMA grant any media outlet "blanket" approval to
come on site at media discretion. Each event requires a media outlet submit
a separate request.
6. Upon approval, the media outlet will be contacted to confirm date
and time of event.
7. When media comes to a group site without prior approval, they are to
be directed to the PIO of that area, the Area Field Office in that area, or
the News Desk at the numbers listed above.
8. Once on-site, media may enter residents' trailers if they are
invited by the residents to do so.