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ABC News crew covering wildfire face criminal charges

A television news crew covering a wildfire in Northern California faces potential charges after police say they illegally entered a crime scene as part of their reporting.

In a statement published Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department accused the journalists of escorting a citizen to a property that was within an active evacuation zone — one that had not been cleared by fire or law enforcement investigators — where a deceased body was later located.

The spokesperson did not name the media outlet in question, but a television story aired earlier this week by ABC News contained video footage from the evacuation zone of the McKinney Fire that matched allegations made by the sheriff’s department.

In the footage, national correspondent Matt Gunman and a photographer for ABC News drove a woman to a property where her uncle reportedly lived. The woman told Gutman that she believed her uncle had died in the fire. A spokesperson for the network later confirmed a dead body was recovered from the property.

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 spokesperson for the sheriff’s office accused the journalists of “disturbing” the property before officials had a chance to visit it and of broadcasting information about the dead man before police had an opportunity to notify his relatives.

It was not clear if Gutman or anyone at ABC News had been notified that the properties inside the evacuation zone were being treated as a crime scene by local law enforcement. A woman who identified herself as the owner of the property later told the sheriff’s office that Gutman and the ABC News crew had her permission to be there, and that she was already aware of her uncle’s passing before the news story was broadcast.

Moving forward, the sheriff’s office says it will be checking the credentials of all individuals purporting to be members of the news media before it provides access to the evacuation zone.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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