• Covering a Natural Disaster
  • July 21, 2010 | Author: Charles L. Babcock
  • Law Firm: Jackson Walker L.L.P. - Dallas Office
  • The ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will continue to be covered by the media, but reporters will surely face obstacles to their coverage. Journalists in the Gulf Coast region have experience combating impediments erected by the government and interested parties to accurate, timely coverage of natural disasters. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government attempted to block video access to the recovery of bodies of victims of the hurricane in New Orleans. CNN, with Jackson Walker's help, was able to obtain a temporary restraining order from a federal judge within six hours, and CNN's coverage, and that of other journalists, was thus restored.

    After Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast in 2008, restrictions were imposed that limited the ability of news helicopters to cover the relief and rescue efforts. Negotiations were underway and litigation imminent when the restrictions were modified. Access to certain devastated areas was sealed off with the threat of prosecution asserted by government officials. Negotiations led to the easing of these threats. Many private land holders were eager to discuss the damage to their property caused by the storm, but some refused permission to film or report on the devastation and threatened to sue for trespass. In subsequent litigation with insurance companies, there is the possibility that court documents will be sealed, thus restricting the media's ability to cover the legal proceedings.

    All of these obstructions to the media are potentially present in the current Gulf Coast spill situation. The media and its counsel will have to avail itself of all the tools available under state statutes and the First Amendment and will need to think creatively to make sure that the story of what appears to be the greatest environmental disaster in this country's history gets out in a timely and accurate way - even the story that some may not want told.