Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ethics Corner

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ethics Corner

Article excerpt


If coverage of the Seattle Mardi Gras melee constituted a test, then it appears more than one media organization failed it

Call them the Seattle deputy news sheriffs.

They are the TV stations and newspapers that caved in to police demands for news-video outtakes and unpublished photos of the Feb. 27 Mardi Gras riot in the city's historical Pioneer Square district. Their surrender to the police force was unnecessary.

The cops had their own cameras focused on the 4,000 revelers and were given dozens of videos by people who witnessed the carnage that injured 70 people and left a 20-year-old man dead.

The trend these days is for news outlets, in the name of civic journalism, to give law-enforcement officials anything they ask for without thinking about the long-range damage they are doing to their credibility or the constitutional well-being of the people they serve.

The Seattle cops were on a fishing expedition when they went after the news products of The Seattle Times, the Post-Intelligencer, and the area's TV stations. That is routine behavior in countries where there is no free press to keep governments in check. Those regimes are always confiscating presses or taking over TV stations. Giving up unpublished material is the same as turning over the presses to the police.

Before newspeople began identifying themselves as civic journalists, TV stations would recycle their outtakes and newspapers would hide or destroy their unpublished photos rather than give them to the cops. But that was when the prevailing wisdom was that reporters should not become undercover operatives.

Except in Seattle.

"The media were all very cooperative," said Gary Nelson, a member of the Mardi Gras police task force formed after the riot. "Everyone was so appalled by what happened that they didn't hold anything back. We were able to identify 71 people from the tapes and take 41 of them into custody."

The Seattle Times won the award for Most Cooperative Newspaper. The Times agreed to post on its Web site the photos of 28 Mardi Gras celebrants the cops thought might have committed crimes. Then the paper culled its picture files for suspects, eventually adding a dozen more people to its Internet list. "It was a way to cooperate without opening ourselves to charges that we were favoring either the prosecutors or the defense attorneys," said Michael R. Fancher, executive editor of the Times.

Fancher also thought he might lose in court if he resisted. He might have changed his mind had he read the 1995 files of his own newspaper. …

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