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Column

From the Editor's Desk: Outlaws don't carry notepads and recorders

One thing journalists who have any legitimate experience rarely ask for or expect is sympathy. That just doesn't really happen, and if you're going to last more than a few years in the business, you'll have to come to terms with that.

There are myriad reasons why people don't like journalists, some of which should concern us – fair criticism about bias, callous disregard for facts, outright lies – those are all things that make good journalists even more angry than the public. There's far too much generalization on that subject, but I digress.

I want to talk about what happened May 9 to West Virginia reporter Dan Heyman, who was arrested for asking questions to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and why it should trouble anyone, whether they like journalists or not.

One of the reasons people don't like journalists is just the nature of the job. We ask pesky questions. If we don't get an answer, expect to hear the question at least a dozen more times. We are asked to explain complex, controversial matters. As in any profession, some are much better at it than others.

We also walk into sometimes horrific crime stories looking for meaning or at least clarity. In the worst moments of a community, or anywhere in the world, expect to find journalists right in the thick of it. War, famine, natural disaster – you name it.

That's the gig. Sometimes people mistakenly think journalists are ghouls because of some of the horrific subjects they cover. I've never met one. As a longtime crime reporter, there are stories that still haunt me. I'm thankful that some of these were before I had my own kids, or the emotional reaction would have been more severe.

Sometimes people think reporters are jerks for being persistent with questions. We're often trying to get at information the powers that be don't want us to have. We aren't waiting patiently for a pat on the head. We work for the public, and they have a lot of questions. Polite, decent folk often don't have the access or the gall to ask those questions.

We should be respectful, even when we sometimes aren't treated with respect, but sometimes we will get angry about a lack of access to information we believe the public has a right to know. Sometimes that's considered rude. Although I'm mild-mannered, I have used my outdoor voice indoors on more than one occasion.

But we're not looking for friends. This is our job. We don't need to be loved. I've got a wife, kids and a dog who I'm pretty sure love me. The dog is old and deaf, but he's happy to see me at breakfast and dinner. Oddly, many of my actual friends are barely interested in what I do for a living. Probably not a coincidence.

So we're OK with the subtle contempt. But dislike for the profession and actually arresting people for performing it isn't just crossing a line, it's setting the Constitution on fire.

Heyman's case made national headlines because it involved a sitting U.S. Cabinet member, but I'm concerned about how often this kind of thing happens and the chilling effect it has on members of the press, and more importantly, on the public's right to know.

We don't make a big splash of it, but just in my own tenure I know of a few occasions where our journalists were threatened with arrest for things such as taking photographs, and in one case (and I'm not making this up) covering a school strike while standing on school property.

This isn't a partisan issue in the least. The Barack Obama administration had a deplorable record when it came to going after journalists. This is a power issue. This is the government trying to control journalists and controlling the public's right to know whatever information the government deems appropriate.

As a news consumer or citizen, maybe you don't like the question, the publication, TV station or simply the journalist. Maybe the question has a liberal slant or a conservative bias. That's not the point. The point is we can't be arresting journalists for asking questions. That's their job.

If we're willing to do that to journalists, why not do it to citizens, too? Guy raises his voice at a city council meeting? Put him in cuffs. The county board chairman doesn't care for your tone? Try on these orange pajamas.

They don't do that because citizens rightly would be up in arms. Why should it be any different when they do it to journalists?

Information is power. And hiding information, avoiding questions, throwing cloaks over what should be transparent are all means of trying to maintain power. It's not about whether one reporter's personality quirks are annoying or not. Being annoying isn't a crime. It's about trying to control people who are seeking information for dissemination to the public.

Using the power of the police to stifle that process is a vile attack on the First Amendment. That's why we need to come to the defense of people such as Heyman and anyone like him.

• Kevin Lyons is the managing editor of the Northwest Herald. Email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinLyonsNWH.

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