A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana

Is Helping the Police Ever Over the Thin Blue Line?
The Ethics of Assisting Journalistic Impersonators

Should a news photographer hand over his camera and cap to a police officer wanting to go undercover to apprehend an armed and dangerous suspect? The ethical answer is "It depends."

Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel staff photographer, Andrew Brosig, was the only media person visible at a standoff Wednesday, August 23, between law enforcement and a man who had earlier in the day shot two people. The suspect, Rodney Collins, had now been trapped by police, but kept them at bay with his shotgun. He said that he wanted to speak to a reporter.

When Lt. Greg Johnson walked toward Brosig, the photojournalist expected that he was going to be asked to move back, so as not to be in the sight of the suspect. Instead, Johnson asked Brosig to borrow a camera and his National Press Photographers Association cap.

The situation that Brosig found himself in and the split-second decision that he had to make were not unique. Indeed, it is the stuff of every field reporter's and videographer's nightmare - being asked by law enforcement to engage rather than document the activities. And, to Brosig, the crisis seemed immediate, with no time for a consultation with the office. "I had no way of calling in," he said, "and I don't think I would have anyway. The situation looked pretty tense. The guy looked pretty disturbed.....He was storming up and down the yard waving a shotgun."

The ethically correct response in situations like this can run anywhere on a continuum that includes the two extremes. "Jump in to help," is at one end of the continuum. "Don't cooperate with law enforcement," is at the other.

When the news photographer is first on an accident scene and she can assist the victims with little risk to herself, there is no question that the journalist should save the life rather than get an initial picture. Few would question the professionalism or the compassion of the shell-shocked journalists in Manhattan who we watched pull victims to safety in-between taking shots and running for cover themselves.

Daily Sentinel editor Gary Borders provided a fine example of the other end of the continuum in the column he wrote regarding the decision his staff shooter faced. "If a police officer walked in here [into the newsroom] and asked to borrow a camera and notebook so he could impersonate a reporter," wrote Borders, "I would politely ask him to leave."

Generally speaking, journalists should not do the job of law enforcement, nor should they actively seek to make the job of law enforcement easier. Journalism and law enforcement serve two different, sometimes complementary and sometimes adversarial, roles in a community. Law enforcement officers will not have their minds fully on their jobs if they are also thinking about how they can best assist the journalists who are covering a crisis. Journalists, likewise, serve the community best when they have no performance expectations aside from their pursuit of the story.

However, journalists should do their job while seeking to cause less harm rather than more. It is not inconsistent with the role of reporting for journalists to offer helping hands in times of crisis.

The real ethical conundrum rises when lending a hand constitutes one of the following conflicts: 1) the journalist is no longer able to do her job because she is helping out, or 2) the assistance is likely to harm the profession.

It is rare that putting down the camera to save a life results in the journalist no longer being able to do her job. While the motivation for helping out in a life-threatening crisis should be based on the feeling of humanity the journalist has, it is also true that most shops are more likely to run pictures of local survivors than pictures of those who die.

However, the question of whether assistance is likely to harm the profession - this is the question that Brosig faced - is a far more common and far more difficult judgment call. Brosig agreed to cooperate with the police, with "a couple of stipulations," according to the column he wrote for his paper. "First, it couldn't be the digital camera I use for the paper because, basically, I wanted pictures of this when it went down. Second, I needed to be closer to the action, to get a better view of the possible capture of Mr. Collins. As Brosig weighed the request, he was careful to consider how he could continue to do his job. "I knew I had to hang on to the digital," he said, "I had to get images of this." The negotiation completed, Brosig handed Johnson his old Nikon N90s, notebook, pen and his khaki NPPA cap. The impersonator was able to subdue the suspect and take him into custody without further bloodshed.

The reasons for cooperating with a request for help, as Brosig did, are compelling. While it is impossible to prove what did not happen, the reasons for cooperation ultimately come down to the probability of saving lives - the lives of hostages or the lives of police officers working to apprehend an armed and dangerous suspect. Even more pragmatically, if Brosig refused to help, what kind of access or cooperation from police could he expect to get in the future?

Yet, the reasons against handing over journalistic props needed to fool a highly disturbed individual are persuasive: journalists need for people on the street - even people who are taking hostages and creating mayhem - to trust that the reporters and photographers covering the events are different from the police attempting to apprehend them. It is important that even the most sleazy sources in the most desperate situations can trust that journalists are on no side other than the truth. It is equally important for the safety of journalists. As freelance photojournalist Leif Skoogfors wrote in an NPPA listserv discussion on the Nacogdoches situation (and used here with permission), "I've been hit by demonstrators who think my credentials are fake and I really work for the FBI, hit by police because I am covering an event, and now possibly may face somebody in the future with a shot gun who decides I may not be 'real' media."

So, what's a reasonable newsroom to do? Create a newsroom policy so that field journalists know that their bosses will back up their decisions. Some news managers may decide that helping out in these seemingly life-threatening situations is more important than the fact some bad guys may not believe that reporters and photographers in the field are who they claim to be. Other news managers may decide that risking the ire and lack of further cooperation from local law enforcement is less important than maintaining the credibility of their press credentials. Yet, others may want to urge their staff to use the police request as a bargaining tool to get the best story and make the journalist's ability to continue doing his job the basis upon which the decision is made.

What matters is consistency. The community should know what to expect from local news media. Reporters and videographers in the field should know what decisions the boss is expecting them to make. Once law enforcement has won the newsroom's cooperation in one stand-off, they will look for it in another. Reporters and photographers can also trust that once turned down, law enforcement may pack their own phony cameras, notebooks and caps as part of their SWAT team gear.

Impersonations of journalists happen with or without the cooperation of newsrooms. The October 1 New Yorker reported the assassination of the Taliban's most knowledgeable opponent, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the man most likely to be helpful to the United States in tracking down Osama bin Laden. Two days before the attacks in New York and Washington, Massoud was fatally wounded "while giving an interview to two Arabs carrying Belgian passports. They were posing as television journalists and there was a bomb in their video camera."

In a world in which so much more is uncertain than before September 11, it is vital that journalists be clear about who they are and what they do.

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