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From the WESA editors: How we're covering the DeSantis visit to Pittsburgh

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses attendees during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit, July 22, 2022, in Tampa, Fla.
Phelan M. Ebenhack
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses attendees during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit, July 22, 2022, in Tampa, Fla.

As we first reported last week, the Pittsburgh appearance planned by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano for Friday evening presents a journalistic quandary.

Ground rules imposed on the media by the event’s sponsor, conservative advocacy group Turning Point Action, established a number of problematic conditions. These include: furnishing tape recordings of the proceedings on demand of Turning Point or its vendors; agreeing in advance not to film anything that appears on screens at the site; agreeing not to film even speakers at the event should they ask not to be filmed; and agreeing to abide by the decisions of a Turning Point representative on site in case of disagreement.

The rules, which also apply to Turning Point events in other states, have attracted concern from journalists nationwide, as well as the attention of The Washington Post. And decisions about how to cover the event are being made amid increased distrust between the media and some members of the public, especially conservative politicians and their supporters. So we want you to understand how WESA will shape its own coverage, and why.

Our intention is to cover the appearances of Gov. DeSantis and state Sen. Mastriano to the fullest extent possible without binding ourselves to Turning Point’s requirements in order to attend the event itself. We will instead take steps that may include speaking with supporters outside the event and monitoring it online.

We made this decision after speaking with media ethicists and reporters in other markets, including some who already have covered earlier stops on Gov. DeSantis’ Turning Point tour. Some outlets have decided to shun the event entirely, others to cover it remotely and still others to go in person.

These are not easy decisions to make, and different journalists may weigh the competing values differently. Some outlets decided the need to inform the public outweighed legal and ethical doubts. One who has already attended a Turning Point event said it did so without incident or interference. Turning Point itself told The Washington Post that “we frequently [waive] certain clauses for legitimate press outlets that are covering the event in good faith.”

On the other hand, a New Mexico reporter who was denied a credential and then entered as a member of the general public was ejected from a DeSantis event — though not one being sponsored by Turning Point — reportedly because a candidate regarded his news site as “a left-wing advocacy group.” And WESA has decided that, however the ground rules may be applied, they present an ethical hurdle on their face.

We’re not willing to agree in advance to turn our heads away from what occurs at a public event — even if the request to do so is never actually made. We're not willing to stipulate that an event sponsor has a claim on tape we record — even if they never actually ask for it. And we believe covering this event from the outside allows us to inform our audience without putting our integrity and independence at risk.

Clarification: This story was updated at 10:50 a.m. on Friday, August 19, 2022 to clarify that an event where a reporter was ejected was not sponsored by Turning Point.