Photojournalist: 5 tips for managing the media on EMS scenes

Be calm, rational and don't get baited into a confrontation which will make you the villain of a viral video

By Jim Dean

I am a journalist. I go to emergency scenes to do a job, just like you. I'll stay out of your way, and you stay out of mine, and we'll do just fine. I'm not there as a hobby; this is what I get paid to do. 

Do I like covering car accidents, homicides and fires? About as much as you do – sometimes it's a rush, sometimes it just sucks. You know exactly what I mean. Either way, I go do the job, day after day. 

Journalists don't have a HIPAA obligation, but the composition of this photo protects the identity of the man that was injured fleeing from police.
Journalists don't have a HIPAA obligation, but the composition of this photo protects the identity of the man that was injured fleeing from police. (Image courtesy Jim Dean, Forsyth County News)

Confrontations with EMS, police, and fire are rare

"Get the hell off my scene," a Georgia State Trooper said as he introduced himself to me. I was trying to cover an accident. It wasn’t a bad one and both victims were already transported. 

I was off to the side, but he wanted me gone. I tried to explain that the only reason I was there was because I needed a shot for an upcoming story about how construction made this stretch of road dangerous. 

It still didn’t matter. I had to go. I was never allowed near the scene, even though bystanders were right there. I was threatened with arrest, and have no doubt that, had I crossed the yellow tape that he put up just for me, I would have gone to jail. His rationale for moving me behind the tape while leaving bystanders three feet from the wreck was "You’re the only one with a damn camera in your hand." 

This sticks out in my mind because it’s one of the very few confrontations I’ve had with fire, EMS and law enforcement while working as a journalist since 1976. Generally, as long as everyone knows the rules they need to play by, there is no need for you to interact with any journalist at the scene. At all. Ever. Whether the journalist has a notebook, audio recorder or camera, you’re best bet is to simply ignore them. 

It's not just journalists. Many bystanders have a camera and begin recording as soon as the incident happens. Mentally prepare yourself to be calm, rational and 99 percent of the time the best answer is to walk right by. Here are five additional tips about journalists and bystanders with cameras that EMTs, medics, firefighters and police need to know.  

1. Journalists have no HIPAA restrictions

Let’s get to the elephant in the room. Or in this case, the HIPAA. I am not a covered provider. I have no HIPAA restrictions. You, however, do. 

Your basic HIPAA obligation when it comes to the press is very simple. Don't divulge any patient medical information to a journalist. Don’t discuss patient specifics within hearing or recording distance, at least not in great detail. Don’t write notes where they can be read. If you have a clipboard with medical information, turn it over so it can’t be seen in a photograph. 

Your HIPAA obligation does not, however, require you to stop me or others from taking images at the scene.

2. Confrontation turns nothing into something

If you really feel your patient’s privacy is being invaded by my work, the first thing to do is ask yourself what’s going to happen if you interact with a journalist. When a San Diego firefighter allegedly shoved a videographer, all that happened is the video of a woman leaving Comic Con on a stretcher, which otherwise would likely have been seen by very few people, garnered tens of thousands of views, if not more. 

So, before you confront a journalist, remind yourself that the best course of action is to head straight for the med unit and close the doors. The patient in San Diego had her face covered and there was nothing graphic being videotaped, so there was absolutely nothing to gain by this confrontation. Getting in the ambulance and shutting the doors is often your best course of action. 

3. Establish a scene perimeter and barriers for everyone

If you have an extended scene time for extrication or other reasons, have fire or law enforcement establish a proper scene perimeter. Remember, you can't single out just the guy with the camera to increase patient privacy. Everyone has to go. 

Be creative. Hold up a blanket or a sheet as a temporary barrier. Shine a flashlight towards the camera without saying a word. 

4. Hands-off 

The very last thing you want to do is to put your hands on the person with the camera, whether it's to try and take that camera, or to push them away. This is not something you have a legal right to do, and if you're dealing with someone like the videographer in the recent San Diego case, it's almost guaranteed to get you and your department sued. If the journalist needs to be physically removed, let a law enforcement officer take care of it 

5. Know your rights (or lack of)

You don't have the right to seize anyone's camera or to delete their images. Under some circumstances, a law enforcement officer can seize a camera, but it takes a warrant to do so, and no one can force anyone to delete an image. 

If someone is actually a working journalist, the bar is even higher. The little known, but very significant Privacy Protection Act of 1980 requires a subpoena, not just a warrant, to even look at a journalist's work product, much less seize it.   

Finally, remember cameras are everywhere. Whether you're sitting in your unit at a stop light, or driving down the road, someone might be pointing one at you. In public, you're fair game. There are people out there who live to "bait" public safety into doing something YouTube worthy. Don't be the one who takes that bait.  

About the author

Jim Dean is the Online Editor at the Forsyth County News in Cumming, Georgia, and has been in journalism since covering a stabbing on the courthouse steps for a local radio station in junior high school in 1976. Along the way, he has worked in radio, television, and now in print. He has always preferred working in the field to any kind of office job. Dean takes pride in having a good working relationship with emergency services and looks forward to opportunities to photograph and write about their important work.  

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