Portions of this column were originally written for the March 2013 edition of News Photographer Magazine.
Mark Loundy is a media producer and consultant based in San Jose, California. Full bio.
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Press Photographers Association.
March 2013, Volume 117
By Mark Loundy
"I spent 10 years of my life single-mindedly studying, practicing, fighting hand-to-hand in close quarters to defeat the enemy, to send him back bloodied and humble and I am not going to roll over and surrender."
When the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department surrounded a cabin in the mountain town of Big Bear, Calif., they suspected that the man inside, Christopher Dorner, a former L.A. police officer and naval security officer, had killed four people, including another police officer and, earlier that day, one of their fellow deputies. The danger was real and immediate. The law enforcement response resembled a military operation and included positioning deputies, including snipers, all around the cabin with other officers searching vehicles on surrounding roads to prevent Dorner from escaping. Exactly where those officers were could be valuable information to the suspect.
Sometimes rapidly unfolding news events require just as rapid ethical decisions. This was an example of news organizations that could have done much better.
To stop tactical information from getting back to Dorner, the FAA, at the request of the sheriff's department, barred civilian aircraft, including news helicopters, from overflying the site of the action any lower than 10,000 feet. This meant that those aerial platforms could only cover the story from a distance with powerful zoom lenses. The San Bernardino District Attorney's Office posted a tweet (now deleted) asking that news media stop tweeting from the area. Even though KCBS TV reporter Carter Evans was positioned about 100 yards from the cabin with a camera and a live Internet connection, the Los Angeles station announced that they were complying with the request. Another L.A. station, KTLA, voluntarily "zoomed back" their helicopter's camera from the site in the name of law enforcement safety. Ironically, KTLA originated the world's first camera-carrying helicopter in 1958, bringing decades of live news coverage to Southern California.
Although news organizations have the obligation to avoid endangering the lives of public safety personnel, they also have a duty to inform the public about the actions of those who act in the name of the people that they serve. The news organizations that rolled over without a whimper and stopped their coverage, abandoned their obligations as watchdogs for the public.
Editing for a dynamic and dangerous situation like a barricaded gunman is not a matter of "either or." For example, live coverage can be curtailed while continuing to record what is happening. What if the police exceeded their authority? A zoomed-out camera would have failed to record it. By the same token, the inevitable conspiracy theories thrive in an information vacuum, often basing wild concepts on nothing more than conjecture and rumor.
But local organizations are not the only ones faced with such choices. In 1971, the New York Times stood against the federal government when it published the Pentagon Papers, providing the American public with accurate information about the Vietnam War, which was then the longest military conflict in US history. That information has helped shape public policy in the 37 years since that war.
More recently, the New York Times, the Washington Post and The Associated Press all cooperated with a request from the federal government not to report the existence of a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia. The had known about it since the fall of 2012, but didn't report it until spring of this year.
The drone program itself was no secret — although the government would not confirm its existence officially. It certainly didn't take a military genius to know that the drones had to be based somewhere within range of their targets in southwest Asia and the northern Arabian Peninsula. So outing the base's heavily protected location in Saudi Arabia did little more than embarrass the Saudis — something that is far less important than informing the American people about military action taken in their name. Since the stories about the base were published, nobody has suggested that its operations have been compromised in any way. What has happened is an increased national dialogue about the efficacy and appropriateness of the drone program.
When the Bush administration manufactured "evidence" that Saddam Hussein possessed "weapons of mass destruction" (i.e. nuclear and chemical weapons,) the US invaded Iraq. Combat operations continued there for more than seven years and US forces remain there to this day. If the major news media had risked the special access that they enjoy in Washington by calling bullshit on the WMD story, the public would have been able to make an informed decision about that conflict, rather than being led to complacency through false pretenses.
There's an old saying that journalists "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The highest realization of that philosophy is when government officials, who are entrusted with the people's business, violate that trust and a journalist is there to tell the story.
But they've got to be there. That's why agreeing to a news blackout involving public officials should only happen in the rarest of circumstances and never on a vague "operational security" request. If you want me to trust that you're making a legitimate request to suppress a story, then you're going to have to trust me with the details.
News people not only have to refuse to let public agencies operate in private, but they also must gain the expertise to make intelligent decisions about tactical information. This is where partnering with police — before an emergency — to learn the limited situations that call for throttling live coverage, is key.
With a generation with far less military experience than those in preceding years, that expertise does not come easily. To reporters with no military background, phrases like, "interlocking fields of fire," or "select-fire weapon" are from a foreign tongue.
But there are ways to make up for that lack of knowledge. Meet with local police leadership to find out what sorts of things would really endanger personnel. Create a "win-win" by, for example, trading live tweeting for greater access, which would permit better, although delayed, coverage. But make it clear that a total news blackout is not on the table.
If news organizations are going to blithely abdicate the role that is the most valuable to the public, there will be even less reason to trust, use or pay for their services.
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly will return next month. Please let me know of any particularly good, bad or ugly dealings that you have had with clients recently. I will use the client's name, but I won't use your name if you don't want me to. Anonymous submissions will not be considered. Please include contact information for yourself and for the client.
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