It’s only natural to have a little friction between governmental entities and the media outlets that cover their meetings and operations.
The give-and-take between reporters and elected officials and administrators is just part of the game, and has been for decades.
But when that relationship turns adversarial, nobody wins — and the biggest casualty is often transparency.
Over the past two years, relations between the Herald and the city of Killeen have frequently been testy and could sometimes be described as combative.
The most frequent sticking points have been a disagreement over the public’s right to city information and city officials’ unwillingness to answer questions from the newspaper regarding matters of public interest.
Certainly, most governmental entities prefer to control the message, whenever possible. But the city’s latest move appears to be aimed at controlling the messenger.
Under the guise of safety and security interests, the city has placed small signs inside City Council chambers at City Hall, declaring certain areas a “restricted area” and others stating “Please keep aisle clear.” The city has also erected portable barriers near the speaker’s podium and city staff seats.
While members of the public may see these signs and barriers as common-sense measures, they are clearly meant to box in the media — chiefly the Herald — in its attempts to provide full coverage of a council meeting.
The new barriers and “restricted area” signs prevent the Herald’s photographer from getting close-up shots of council members during the meeting, as well as from taking front-facing photos of speakers addressing the council from the podium. Taking photos of the backs of speakers is considered both unflattering and unprofessional. Yet that is what our photographer is relegated to doing under the city’s new restrictions.
An important part of news coverage is the ability to tell the story through photos and video. The new city policies severely inhibit the Herald’s ability to do so.
However, the photography aspect of the Herald’s council coverage is not the only area impacted by the city’s actions.
The Herald has asked the city for a designated media table near the front of the room, with access to a nearby electrical outlet, to facilitate the reporter’s use of a laptop during council meetings.
This is not an unusual request, as many cities provide a designated media table, with chairs, near the front of the room. Harker Heights provides such a table, as well as a full council agenda booklet for the reporter.
While Killeen City Manager Kent Cagle offered assurances that the Herald’s request would be addressed, the situation still has not been resolved.
When the Herald’s reporter sits in the front row, there is no table on which to place the laptop and nowhere to plug it in nearby. And running an extension cord back to an outlet violates the city’s policy of keeping the aisles clear.
Certainly, this is not an optimum situation.
Instead, the city has now placed signs at the back of the room labeled “media.” That may be fine for television media outlets, which rarely attend council meetings. However, designating an area at the back of the room sends an unwelcoming and restrictive message to the Herald, a community news outlet that consistently sends a team of journalists to every council meeting — no matter what is on the agenda.
Adding to this latest inconvenience is the city’s insistence on adherence to its media policy, which not only prohibits media interviews during a meeting — which is just common courtesy — but also bans interviews in council chambers both before and after meetings.
This is an extreme inconvenience for reporters who are trying to get clarification on a response, ask a follow-up question or give council members an opportunity to expound on a statement made during the meeting.
If a reporter is required to go out in the hall to interview a council member or city staffer — especially after a meeting — the returning reporter is likely to find that other potential interview subjects have already left the council chambers by another door.
Overall, these city-enforced restrictions make it much more difficult for the Herald’s reporter and photographer to do their jobs — with a resulting loss of both transparency and accountability.
Many of the limitations placed on journalists can be traced back to Killeen’s media policy, which the council updated in August 2021.
During that 2021 update, Councilman Michael Boyd proposed some additional restrictions, including one calling for a designated seating area for media during meetings and another that would forbid council members from sitting next to members of the media during city meetings or events. A third proposal called for greater enforcement of the policy restricting media interviews in city council chambers.
While Boyd’s proposals failed to gain enough support to be adopted, they seem to indicate a general feeling of animosity toward the media — and that’s unfortunate.
But it’s important to note that the city manager is responsible for creating the media policy — and as such, it would seem the recent media restrictions on council access have come at his request.
All the reminders from the city spokeswoman, portable barriers and newly placed signage don’t negate the fact that free speech is at issue here. And the city is actively attempting to restrict it.
Mayor Debbie Nash-King, who championed open government and media availability when she first assumed the mayor’s post, should be concerned that the city’s policies have eroded our First Amendment rights.
Council members should be aware of these media restrictions and call for their easing or modification.
However, some members not only acknowledge these limitations but actively support them. They appear to be in favor of limiting availability to media members — and adding some physical distance is one way to do that.
With elections coming up in May, it’s important that Killeen’s voters take note of those who ran on transparency but now seem to be running from it.
Contrary to what some city officials may believe, the Herald wants to work with the city, not against it.
It’s in everyone’s best interest if accounts of Killeen’s governmental activities are thorough, balanced and timely. That can only happen if the Herald is given full and timely access to those who are making the decisions on the residents’ behalf.
There has to be some middle ground here, and the Herald is willing to explore whatever possibilities city officials see as appropriate.
We have an obligation to our readers, just as the city has an obligation to its residents.
Let’s get this worked out.
Yes they think they are special and deserve special rights and powers.they election is only good as the people ensuring the count is legal and is not rigged. Everyone has folks who want special favors for their vote. As a nation we need to stop these elitists now before we are a communist nation full of rules for us and for they
Yes they think they are special and
For the first time I actually agree with something in a KDH editorial. What nefarious activities is the Killeen council trying to hide from the press? There is a reason the city council wants their agenda hidden and it is not for the betterment of Killeen citizens. May elections give us an opportunity to remove some of the clowns from the council. We should take the opportunity to do just that
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