Court room beat down

July 12, 2013 

After more than two years, my coverage of Tashia Stuart came (almost) full circle as I rushed to Franklin County Superior Court in time for the jury to announce their guilty verdict in the murder of Judy Hebert.

I say "almost" because I don't know if I'll be covering her sentencing. And though I was there for the beginning and the end, I wasn't around for much of the middle. Since the four of us staff photographers rotate schedules every six weeks, our involvement in ongoing stories can be spotty, and we don't have beats like reporters do.

The courts have been the Herald's Kristin Kraemer's beat for the last 11 or so years and her knowledge and connections at the courthouses are vital. As much as I try to beef up on background and stay on top of what's going on, there's no substitute for being there. Sometimes a court assignment springs up unexpectedly when a trial takes a dramatic turn, and you don't have time to brush up. It's also tough to know who the important people are in the crowd — is that woman crying because she's the defendant's loved one or the victim's? Asking her is an awkward way to find out.

In this case, Kristin was able to text me after I entered the courtroom to tell me that man I was standing next to is Rolfe Hebert, the victim's ex-husband who had remained friends with her. I don't remember having seen him before and while it was clear that he was eagerly anticipating the verdict, I probably wouldn't have keyed in on him and his wife quite so much without knowing exactly who they were.

As the jury entered, I was excited to see no other media members there besides Kristin and me. I wished unsuccessfully for a second me to shoot video, and focused instead on capturing the crucial moments. Here's what I saw:

No TV station showed up until they were taking Stuart out of the courtroom, at which point one reporter loudly complained that the Herald was only able to make it since we don't have to lug gear around. It was not only a stupid, false statement, but an annoying one too.

Sure, my cameras aren't as big as a television camera, and I don't have to carry a big tripod, but I'm still toting a fair amount of stuff. The real affront was that reporter discounting the importance of having somebody well-connected and knowledgeable at the courthouse during important trials. In this case, it was Kristin hearing some questions from the jury and inferring that a verdict was near that gave me the head start necessary to get there in time.

I understand her frustration. I hate being beat to a scene and there are few professional feelings worse than knowing you missed something big. However, it's ridiculous and unprofessional to complain vocally in the courtroom and make meaningless and false excuses after the fact. If I were to throw another couple adjectives into the mix, I'd add "delicious" and "funny," because that's how it felt to see other media folks show up after most of the moments had long passed.

It's not totally fair to say they dropped the ball and beat our chests about being there, however.

Despite drastic cutbacks at the Herald and halving the number of reporters in the last five years, we still have more resources than the local TV stations. Not only do they face more direct competition in the same medium, they are relatively smaller in the broadcast industry. I don't need to pull up any stats to safely say that there are hundreds of newspapers smaller the the Herald across the country. Meanwhile, local TV ranks 126th out of 210 in this Station Index ranking, and that's including Yakima. The size of this TV market also means that most of their reporters are fresh out of school and many take off after a couple years, which, from an outsider's perspective, must make it even more difficult to establish beats.

The variety of assignments I get to shoot is one of the things I enjoy most about my job, but much like the time David Webster took the stand during his inmate rape trial, Tashia Stuart's verdict showed how invaluable it is to have a veteran beat reporter making sure we don't miss a thing.

Speaking of value...

Allen Murabayashi expands on Michael Shaw's piece about the power of David Eun's tweeted photo of Asiana Flight 214 at SFO last week. It's an interesting read in light of all the discussion about the Sun-Times' recent decision to axe its photo staff in favor of stringers and reporters with iPhones, and the more recent move by Southern Community Newspapers.

The most recent victim of so-called Ag-Gag bills is George Steinmetz, who was arrested while on assignment for National Geographic. Steinmetz was paragliding and taking aerial photos of a Kansas feedlot. Here's hoping the prestige of Nat. Geo. will prevent this type of legislation from spreading and strengthening.

While I loathe the paparazzi, I'm going to have to side with them on this one, as NBA player Lamar Odom threw a hissy fit and wrecked a bunch of gear in the street. I think Odom will probably be buying some new cameras and lenses soon.

And just for fun, check out this collection of Korean Photoshop trolls. It's not quite as extensive as the seldom-updated The Photoshop Troll, but worth clicking for some chuckles.

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