Monday, April 19, 2010

Should Journalists Cooperate With the Police?

FOUR TIMES THE number of expected revelers showed up at an annual outdoor party near James Madison University last week. When police tried to disperse the crowd, a riot broke out. Around 40 people were injured, mostly from flying beer bottles and other thrown objects. Around 30 arrests were made.

Local police asked the JMU newspaper to provide their images of the event, ostensibly so that the police could identify suspects. The newspaper editor declined.

"I said that the only ones that we were going to release at this time were the ones that were on our Web site and the ones that were already published," the editor says she told police, according to the Roanoke Times. "I didn't feel like it was our responsibility to give information to the police and be the investigators for them."

On Friday, police arrived at the newspaper office with a search warrant and downloaded all of the newspaper's images.

Should the editor and staff have cooperated from the beginning? Or were they right in telling the cops they should do their own dirty work?

(The image above was shot by the local police department. They had their own photographers on the scene as well.)


Dan P. said...

I think both parties acted appropriately in this situation. The police went to the newspaper hoping to get more information and when the editor refused, she and the police knew it was within her rights to do so. So they got a warrant, and the editor did what she was obliged to do.

Geo said...

And you are OK with the cops getting a search warrant (and a judge allowing it)? Where is the freedom of the press? The journalists did nothing illegal, so the police had no right to search and copy the images.

You don't mind law enforcement using journalists as their workforce?

Would you allow the police to see your raw video or your written notes? What if you were investigating police corruption? Would you still allow them access to your work?

- George
(the teacher is very concerned by this case)

Dan P. said...

Well I'm no lawyer, but I don't see it as a violation of freedom of press because there is no threat of censorship. I don't know exactly what criteria are required for a judge to issue a search warrant, but I am assuming they were met in this instance. I don't think you need to have necessarily broken a law for a warrant to be issued to search your property. I think that "probable cause" of evidence of a crime on a premises is enough for a warrant to be issued. For example, an employer may be forced to submit employment records involving a possible criminal or a company may be required to submit sales records even if it was not involved in the crime.
Finally, if I was injured and needed medical attention I couldn't afford, I would sure as hell want the newspaper to cooperate.

Theodore Wohlsen said...

There are many colleges that try and protect their kids from the law, like by not enforcing underage drinking penalties for minors. As far as I can see this get-together was not organized by JMU. It also appears that the event was off campus. However, I guess we will assume that JMU students were participating in illegal activity and thus the journalists did not want to be snitches to their friends and good for them. However, they admitted that they had photos and were withholding information. If they really wanted to protect the student body they should have been smarter and said nothing to the police, and discarded all the photos that incriminated JMU students. Thus, they were idiots and now they're whining and blaming it on the police when they should be blaming it on themselves and focusing on how to prevent this from happening next time.

They only reason photographers were there in the first place was with the hope that something cool like a police v. reveler riot would go down. A photojournalist is no different than a human operated surveillance camera. In this instance they were a human operated unconscious surveillance camera. If they only thought ahead...

The Roanoke Times mentioned the "Privacy Protection Act, a "federal anti-newsroom search law"." I looked it up on Wikipedia... it wasn't in there. The police actions appear as though they followed traditional protocol and obeyed the law. Not to mention the police were protecting the community surrounding the spring flingers.

Berryman, A said...

I feel as if both the police and editor handled it very well. The editor did not have to show the police the photos she obtained. It was also the police's job to search for photos, instead of photos being given to them. Since the police already knew were they could retrieve photos, they did their job and obtained a search warrant.

Frankito29 said...

Journalist should NOT cooperate with the police. They should do their own dirty work! (they had a photographer on the scene) why would they need journalists information and photos?

Getting a search warrant!? i mean, come on!! this is why i hate the police. they think they can do whatever they want! what happened to the freedom media is "supposed" to have?

Dan P. said...

What freedoms were denied? The paper wasn't told not to publish the photos or the story. And the police didn't exactly "do whatever they wanted", they had to go through a judge to get a warrant and judges are entirely separate from the police. They are trained to understand the Constitution and any legal precedents established through previous cases.

And why should it be a hard and fast rule that journalists not cooperate with the police? Professor Miller just told me Tuesday about a shooting that was captured on film and the news crew immediately made a copy and gave it to the police. Was that wrong? What if you or a loved one was seriously hurt in that JMU riot and only the newspaper photographers captured it on film? The police photographers can't be everywhere at once.

Maura said...

Both the reporters and police acted appropriately, as their jobs require, in this instance. They were right not to hand over the photos when asked, because the proper avenue to obtain evidence that could be used in a trial is to obtain a search warrant. The police went to court, obtained the warrant, and got the information required by the search warrant. Both parties acted within the limits of the law.

However, the larger issue here is not whether or not the police and reporters acted correctly, but a philosophical discussion of whether or not the work of journalists should be allowed access by police at all - whether or not journalism can be used as evidence in a court of law.

This is a tricky question, but the main point that has to be addressed is if cooperating with the police somehow threatens the legitimacy of the press and its ability to operate as a free agent? Does allowing tapes shot by reporters be used as evidence undermine journalism?

My answer is no. The police have a right to investigate crimes, and while it is never the requirement of a reporter to hand over tapes or notes (and generally not a good idea), it is the requirement of a reporter to obey the law. And when the police obtain a search warrant for information that could be valuable in a criminal investigation, it is within that reporter's duty as a citizen under the law to give over that information. This is the same with investigations which do not involve reporters - police can obtain warrants to get information they need for an investigation.

The key here is that the police cannot simply walk in and demand tapes or take them by force. They have to go to court where they make their case before a judge, and if the judge orders a search warrant, then the police have the right to act within the limits of that warrant. Being a reporter is not special privilege to disobey the law.