By ANTHONY CEPAK
Capital News Service
LANSING — As a teenager, photojournalist Steve Jessmore experienced the threat of danger while on assignment his first day at work.
“The first assignment I went on at the Saginaw News, I had a gun pulled on me,” Jessmore said. “I was 18-19 years old, trying to go into a gym for this rec basketball league, and the guys were giving me hard time and wouldn’t let me in. But you have to stay calm and cool, and realize you are there to do a job.”
Now the assistant director of photos and image marketing at Central Michigan University, Jessmore was chief photographer at the Saginaw News and Flint Journal. Over his 23-year career, he covered two cities that historically have among the highest crime rates per-capita in the state.
“Working the streets of Saginaw and Flint you just never know, and you have to be careful,” he said. “You almost have to have a sixth sense about what’s around you.”
Videos of the recent beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have brought the issue of journalists’ safety in conflict zones to international attention.
However, many reporters, photographers and producers in the United States face dangerous situations as well, such as drug raids, shootings, riots, fires and natural disasters.
For example, after the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., protests escalated into riots and journalists found themselves folded into the fray of the event they were covering.
In its security guide, the Committee to Protect Journalists says, “Journalists covering protests and other violent civil disturbances face legal and physical risks from all sides, often at the same time.” CPJ is a nonprofit press freedom advocacy group that provides training and resources to journalists covering potentially dangerous situations.
The experiences of Jessmore and other Michigan journalists highlight such risks close to home.
Describing a police standoff with a tenant who refused to be evicted in Saginaw, he said, “He shot at us, bullets ricocheting off the street. So we were standing behind the police car just trying to make pictures. But then there’s that lull when nothing is happening, but you have to be alert and ready for when something does happen.”
Dominic Adams, now a reporter at MLive in Flint, covered a chemical fire when he was a reporter at the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.
He’d just started his 6 a.m. shift when he heard reports of an explosion and fire over the police scanner. The fire was at a warehouse a mile from the newsroom.
“I got there before they even put up the police tape,” Adams said. “Of course they were wanting to keep everyone back, but I’m trying to get color and imagery for the story. There were heavy plumes of smoke and it started to burn my eyes.
“I didn’t really know what was in there and I just didn’t even really think about it. I have a job and a duty to do. All I knew was my throat hurt really bad and I stunk really bad afterward,” he said. “I washed my clothes several times but it was just this putrid, chalk smell I just couldn’t get out of my system.”
Adams was exposed to dust particles from charred fiberglass and polyurethane-foam insulation housed in the warehouse.
The day after the fire, officials discussed the environmental impact of the fire, including air quality and runoff that seeped into a ditch behind the warehouse, killing fish and aquatic life.
Freelance photographer and former Holland Sentinel photo editor Dennis Geppert also found himself in harm’s way when flames surrounded him while he covered a forest fire near Port Sheldon in Ottawa County.
“It started as a standard fire call,” Geppert said. “Then the wind shifted and the fire jumped the fire line. There was a ball of a fire and it started coming at us pretty quick.”
He said he was trying to find a way out to get back to his car but the firefighters had to make a new way out. “They said, ‘You need to get out of here,’ so I started to go and they yelled, ‘No, you have to run.’”
Jessmore, Adams and Geppert all said they approached dangerous situations with varying degrees of caution, but ultimately they were there to do a job, to get the picture and tell the story.
Covering spot news “takes a certain kind of person to do it well,” Jessmore said.
“I’m not sure I was one of those people, but I am not sure I wasn’t– it was just part of the job. I always knew, though, that a house fire is never just a house fire. There is always a story there.”
CPJ recommends that journalists in dangerous situations always clearly identify themselves as press and be respectful and professional toward those in command at a scene.
“Crossing police lines or disobeying police orders could lead to arrest. Being respectful in both tone and demeanor is usually the best way to proceed. Journalists covering emergency or rescue scenes should also prominently display their press credentials at all times,” the CPJ Journalist Security Guide says.
And Jessmore said, “It’s imperative to get great pictures, to do your job, that you have some level or trust” with law enforcement. If you burn those bridges and cause a problem, it will spread quick and people will not give you access.
“That comes from doing your job in a professional way,” he said.
By ANTHONY CEPAK