Switch to digital threatens to kill the buzz of the newsroom scanner

Student journalists may be left out of the loop as police departments limit public access to systems

Many cities are switching to the digital devices to ensure security, but with increased security comes restricted access for the media and the public because traditional radio scanners no longer work. Some emergency departments will not allow access to the new systems at all.

When the police go digital, often only the media can follow, and at a high price. Because there is currently no way to monitor digital communications made with these new devices, news outlets must, at least for now, enter into agreements with local authorities to use the same equipment the agencies do.

The University of Florida's student newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, is now spending $1,572 per year to lease a Trunked Radio System from Gainesville Regional Utilities to listen to what had previously been available on a scanner with a one-time cost of roughly $150.

The TRS devices in Gainesville are digital, and the emergency agency communications broadcast on them cannot be monitored with a traditional radio scanner. The only way to access the broadcasts is to use a TRS, but the radio must be programmed with the right access software for it to pick up the correct transmission.

The Radio Management Board in Gainesville, which oversees the new communications system for all emergency departments in the area, is unwilling to give anyone but the media access to the digital radios, according to Trey Csar, managing editor of the Alligator.

At first, the board was unwilling to allow any media access to the system. When it first announced it would begin using TRS in November, the board voted 5-1 to deny access to the media but later came to an agreement with local news organizations. Gainesville Regional Utilities leases the radios from Motorola on an annual basis and charges the news outlets a monthly rental fee.

"Given this agreement, news media outlets are the only ones that are allowed to lease these radios," Csar said.

Brad Barber, who is directing the upgrade to TRS for Gainesville Regional Utilities, said the agreement is in line with Florida law, which restricts radio access to the news media, amateur radio operators, alarm system contractors and neighborhood crime watch groups. He also said what constitutes the news media is defined by the local sheriff's office.

Only "designated media representatives [as defined by the] Alachua County sheriff's office," may arrange to either lease a radio from Gainesville Regional Utilities or buy one and pay a user fee for access, Barber said.

Police in Clermont County, Ohio, outside Cincinnati, have also switched to encrypted radio communication devices that prevent access with traditional scanners. The police have said they will allow media to access the communications but not the public. The Cincinnati chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is openly protesting the decision, saying that the public should also be allowed access and that the switch raises serious questions for small media outlets, including the student press.

"We don't know yet how severe this problem will be," said Tim Bonfield, president of the Cincinnati SPJ. "But once police can encrypt dispatched communications, it won't be good news for student newspapers or any other kind of newspapers."

Another question the new technology has raised is whether the media will be able to access the same transmissions it could with a traditional scanner.

According to Barber, the Alligator and other media outlets that choose to lease a radio should be able to access essentially the same broadcasts they could before the switch.

Talkgroups, or channels, that are off-limits are those that "are reserved strictly for criminal investigations or those types of events," Barber said. "But that's nothing new -- that's been standard policy here for a long time. In the past, on older systems, those were encrypted, so you wouldn't have had access to those anyway."

Csar said it is not yet clear whether the police will use the new technology to hide information from the media. The Alligator has only used the radio for a few months, and he said he is unaware of whether there are any set guidelines for what the police can and cannot put on private frequencies.

"We haven't run into a problem specifically," Csar said. "We get most of [what we got before]." But, he added, "no one is monitoring those bands to make sure what they are transmitting needs to be transmitted over those bands."

The emergency agencies decide which talkgroups will be accessible to the media. If a media outlet wanted access to a talkgroup not already available, the request would be weighed by each individual agency, according to Barber.

Citizens in Gainesville cannot access any of the talkgroups, however, because they cannot use the TRS -- even if they are willing to pay the $131 per month to rent the systems.

In Ohio, it is still unclear what guidelines the police will use.

"We don't know what rules there will be for the police taking away access," Bonfield said. "We have no way of predicting how cooperative individual police departments will be with individual media outlets, and we don't know whether student journalists or student publications will get the same treatment as the professional media will get."

The reasons behind the switch to digital in Florida, according to Ed Regan, strategic planning director for Gainesville Regional Utilities, are the Federal Communications Commission's decision to change the frequencies available to emergency agencies and the fact that the equipment in use needed to be replaced anyway.

The public may have access eventually, though, Regan said.

"We know that consumer-grade digital trunking scanners are being developed," he said. "But it's no longer a question of going out and buying a $100 scanner."

Barber said he has not heard any complaints about lack of access.

"The only complaint I've heard, of course, is the cost, but we don't really have any control over that -- we're just passing through whatever Motorola charges us to users," he said.

Cindy Swirko, a reporter on the law enforcement beat for The Gainesville Sun, said there are some communications that are no longer accessible.

"Some of the communications between ambulances you can't get anymore," she said. "They put them on separate channels for medical privacy reasons."

Csar said there is a broader issue at play in this case.

"I think a bigger question is going to come up-what defines news media?" he said. "They've really created a privileged class of the public. The media is no less the public than John Doe down the street."

reports, Spring 2001