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Sheriff threatens legal action against media outlets over wildfire coverage

The LNU Lightning Complex fire burns along Highway 128 west of Winters, California on August 19, 2020. (Photo: Matthew Keys/The Desk)
(File photo by Matthew Keys/Graphic by The Desk)

A California sheriff say five media outlets are under criminal investigation for abusing their right to newsgather within a declared emergency zone.

The five news outlets include two local television stations — ABC affiliates KRCR-TV (Channel 7) in Redding and KDRV (Channel 12) in Medford, Oregon — as well as ABC News, CBS News and the Los Angeles Times.

In a social media post, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office levied a wide variety of accusations against reporters and photojournalists with those news outlets, including trespassing, disturbing crime scenes and bringing unauthorized people into an area closed off to the public during the McKinney Fire that broke out earlier this month.

The accusations build on an earlier complaint levied by the same office that said an unnamed television news crew disturbed a potential crime scene within the McKinney wildfire zone. The specificity of those accusations led The Desk to conclude that the complaint stemmed from a story produced and aired by ABC News, in which correspondent Matt Gutman brought an evacuee to a burned-out property before police had a chance to examine and process the scene.

A California law allows the news media to have unfettered access to the scene of a disaster or other emergency, even when that area is closed to the public. But the law doesn’t extend to areas that are crime scenes.

A follow-up social media post expanded the scope of the sheriff’s accusations against specific media outlets, including four that had not been previously known to have broken any rules.

In a statement, a spokesperson for KRCR-TV said no one from the sheriff’s office had contacted them to discuss any problems, and disputed anyone on their staff had violated the law.

“We dispute these claims,” Tense Garfield, the general manager of KRCR, said in a statement. “We here at KRCR have followed the rules regarding media access in all situations, and we respect the work of all first responders and the difficult job they do on a daily basis. We also respect the privacy of those families who have suffered losses due to the fire.”

Officials at the other four news outlets were unavailable for comment.