Sometimes, news judgment can be tough. Here’s a scenario:
Do you write a story if one of the primary purposes of a person’s actions is to draw attention to themselves?
The answer: It depends.
That’s not my favorite answer, because it means there can be difficult decisions. (I like easy decisions more than hard ones.) So, here’s a case study related to an incident that has drawn significant attention recently:
Last week, a man who was carrying two guns — one slung on his shoulder and one on his hip — walked through a Broken Arrow park. Someone called police and the man was arrested on a complaint of obstruction and a complaint of feloniously pointing a firearm. The man has been known to take his guns to public places and record his interactions; and there are others like him. They are self-described “auditors.”
Among the sentiments I saw from readers online was this one: These people are just looking for attention.
A Tulsa police officer once told me the same thing a few months ago. “I hate to give them a lot of publicity, because that’s what they want,” he said.
With that in mind, I called Don Spencer, the president of the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association, and asked him: Are these just attention-seeking efforts?
I want to share Spencer’s answer, along with the process of how we make decisions on whether to publish stories of this nature.
Spencer said there were two primary reasons people conducted audits. He noted that he isn’t a fan of the practice but did video record his trip to the Oklahoma City Zoo, where authorities violated his rights, he said.
The first reason for the recordings, Spencer said, is to “maintain the integrity of any conversation or any action with any person.” The second reason is that it “becomes awareness for the issue or the cause.”
In these types of audits, “the cause” is freedom to openly carry weapons in public places. Spencer has worked at the State Capitol to advance legislation, and the so-called constitutional carry bill signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt this session takes effect Nov. 1. People will be permitted to openly carry guns, not just handguns, in the state and won’t need a permit to do so.
Right now, a permit is required to carry a handgun, either openly or concealed. There are restrictions where guns are not allowed.
Last week’s incident in Broken Arrow is one of three that immediately came to mind regarding news judgment relating to auditors. In two of three cases, we published stories.
The first was at the opening of Gathering Place. Three people showed up with guns that day and peacefully left when they were asked to. (That was the day the police officer told me he didn’t want to give them additional attention.)
We wrote a story for a couple of reasons: It was a highly public event, and the issue of guns at Gathering Place had already been raised previously. We discussed story placement in the paper and decided to run it on an inside page. Tulsa World photographer Mike Simons saw the man walking through the park and took photos.
(Quick aside: There is current legislation, House Bill 2010, on the issue. It clarifies that concealed carry would not be prohibited at municipal zoos or parks that are either public trusts or operated by a nonprofit entity. That would include Gathering Place.)
We wrote a story last week and a follow-up, because a man was arrested in a park and accused of a felony. That was not a difficult decision.
A story we didn’t write involved a First Amendment audit at the downtown Tulsa library. Men were recording interactions with people, some of whom became uncomfortable and police were called. There were some mentions of what happened on social media, but there seemed to be no broad public interest or concern.
That’s a key factor in a process when editors — many with decades of experience — discuss stories that involve people whose goal is to draw attention to themselves. Is there a broad public interest in what happened?
That’s not always an easy question. In fact, people here will disagree on the answer. Even within the Tulsa Police Department, not everyone agrees on the best media approach for covering Second Amendment audits.
Sgt. Shane Tuell told me last week that he believes media coverage can help educate the public on gun laws. That runs counter to what the officer told me at Gathering Place.
News judgment can be subjective, and I’ve received many emails and calls through the years about decisions. I explain our rationale. Sometimes people agree with that. Sometimes they don’t. And sometimes, after hearing their point of view, I agree with them and wish we had made a different decision.
News judgment can be a land of second-guessing, full of debates, discussion and respectful disagreement … and that’s just in the newsroom.
When it’s over, we often discuss it some more. That’s a good process, too, because we know we’ll be doing this again tomorrow.