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

Video 'Wars' Obscure News: But they shed light on news conventions

Spring Break in Galveston, as in other beach communities, attracts swarms of teens and young adults for annual rituals of drinking, drugs and sex. But, this year, an 18-year-old high school senior claimed that she was raped and sexually assaulted on the beach while a crowd of at least 30 men watched. A University of Texas freshman said that her charge was bogus and that he had the videotape to prove it.

More than three months after the alleged attack, local police say that no arrests have been made and the investigation continues. And, more than three months after he paid to use the videotape, KHOU News Director Mike Devlin says he is still "hot" about what feels like an unfair attack by a rival television station, KTRK. "They used their newsroom in an attempt to damage a competitor."

Devlin said that KHOU outbid KTRK for the videotape. "We got the tape because we paid more than KTRK was willing to pay." The rival station's response, according to Devlin, was to run a story that purposefully made it look as though KHOU was obstructing justice.

Devlin said, "KTRK made it sound as though we were refusing to turn a rape tape over to authorities."

"There was no rape on that tape," he said, "and I told the authorities what the agreement was -- we told them to get a subpoena so that we wouldn't have to hand the tape back to the witness."

Our review of the 50 second tape, for which KHOU paid "more than KTRK was willing to pay," according to Devlin, showed a smiling young woman lifting her top while her breasts are fondled and two frames (less than 1/2 a second) of the woman reclined in her car with her pants off. Just a few seconds of the videotape appears on the two news packages that KHOU supplied for review. "There wasn't much we could show," said Devlin, "mostly a wide angle shot of the crowd around the car." Review of the tape and the KHOU's coverage substantiates that no one from the videotape was identifiable in the newscast and no graphic sexuality is included.

KTRK News Director Dave Strickland disagreed with Devlin's perspective. He would not disclose if KTRK bid on the tape or not, although he said that the station has stringers that they use and "we purchase video from them like every other station." Strickland denied that his station broadcast news packages critical of KHOU, but said that they "ran a story about a mother who was critical of KHOU; we reported that the Galveston police department was critical of KHOU." Devlin responded, "In every market around the country, there are these ratings wars. They are so vicious."

Setting aside how the ratings war affects ethical decision making (which we will return to in a later column), this Spring Break saga sheds light on a number of issues, assumptions, and social norms relating to sex crime coverage.

Here are some of the questions that Houston newsrooms thought about, or should have thought about in reporting this story:

1) Should the adult alleged victim be named? She wasn't, even though she was easily identifiable in the raw videotape.

2) Should the story be reported before a formal complaint is filed? The story ran in both print and electronic news as soon as the video was made available, even though no formal charges have yet been made.

3) Should television stations pay for copies of the videotape? KTRK, Channel 13, and KHOU, Channel 11, two of Houston's three television stations were offered opportunities to bid for the tape. According to Channel 11 and the Houston Chronicle, the seller of the tape said that KTRK dropped out when the bidding went over $500.

4) Should the television station give the tape airtime? In a very limited way, KHOU did.

5) Should the television station invite a law enforcement official and the alleged victim's mother to see the tape before it ran and then include those interviews in the news package? KHOU did.

6) Should the television station hand the tape over to law enforcement after waiting for a subpoena to be produced? KHOU did that too.

The place we begin with all of these ethical issues is by asking a basic question: just what made this story news and what was the timing of the news story? The alleged attack occurred the night of March 13; the story was first broadcast two weeks later; a print story ran April 3.

Devlin says, "This was a legitimate news story and we covered it responsibly," but Kevin Moran, reporter for the Houston Chronicle cites Spring Break mentality for media focus on the story. "Almost everything gets reported on Spring Break. We have a lot of high school students who come down here." But he questions the true journalistic value of the story.

Ultimately, what determined when this story was reported, was not the young woman's unsubstantiated claim, which would have been "news" immediately rather than two weeks later. The existence of a videotape and a television station's access to the amateur videotape seemed the determining factor. Indeed, the video served as the common news ingredient for KHOU, Houston Chronicle and, KTRK coverage.

One KHOU package reviewed focused on Sergeant Mike Berry's reaction to seeing the video, made available to him by KHOU. His initial reaction was that no rape seemed to be in progress. "I have to really review the tape a little bit more before I can make that determination," he said. [But] obviously, the lady was smiling at that point, so no."

The other KHOU package focused on the alleged victim's mother, who was shown only in shadow, and the mother's reaction, "She's being a teenager, a young dumb teenager, but that doesn't mean that she's asking for it."

Moran's April 2 story in the Housing Chronicle spent an equal number of inches on the television stations' video saga as it did on the actual alleged event. "I called Channel 11 first," said Moran. "It was KHOU who bought the tape and aired it. Then I called Channel 13 [KTRK] because they had criticized it. I asked if they had been approached and they had to say "yes". KTRK had news stories that allowed other people to criticize Channel 11's broadcast, but never told the public that they had bid on it themselves."

In the web version of Channel 13's April 1 story, the narrative included the following reporter perspective, "The mother is also not happy that the person who made the tape of her daughter's attack received money from KHOU for something that should have been given freely to detectives." KTRK's involvement in bidding from the tape is not mentioned in the newscast.

KTRK's coverage included an implication that there was something questionable about KHOU's unwillingness to turn the tape over to law enforcement without a court order or subpoena. According to a web version, a April 1 KTRK story included the following, "Devlin told us he will not fight authorities if they want to get a copy of it, but it will take a court order to get a copy of the tape." The tape, itself, how it was used and under what conditions it would be released become the news story.

It is common practice in the news business to pay for video or pictures, particularly if shot by amateurs. "Some people give it away," said Devlin, "but most don't. It is a common practice in television news. If you think or say it doesn't happen you are naive or hypocritical. "

Freelancers are paid for their stories and pictures; news organizations and wire services are compensated when their work is reprinted. Non-professionals who happen to get a lucky shot with their still or video camera are paid handsomely for rights to their pictures. It is an interesting social norm of the news business that only raw narrative interviews are expected to be given away without charge.

But, paradoxical conventions are the norm rather than the exception in news coverage. Victims of alleged sex crimes are routinely given anonymity, even if their claims of the attack are questionable. Victims of other abusive crimes, such as domestic violence, are not so protected. Assaults that bruise the genitals are often crimes of rage and power; domestic assaults that bruise the eyes and arms and lips are often crimes of sexual aggression. But, news organizations rarely make such a fine distinction in determining just which victims to protect and which to expose.

How KHOU involved others, such as law enforcement officers and the alleged victim's mother, in the production of their news stories sheds light another set of norms. When television stations shares footage with sources in the newsroom to provoke an on-camera conversation about a developing news story, they are often accused of creating the news. Yet, when print reporters thumb through their golden Rolodex, and provide information to the right source in the hope of getting the right quote in return, it's called fleshing out the story.

And, then there is the sometimes adversarial, sometimes non-adversarial, relationship between a news organization and law enforcement officials. It is hard to say that KHOU was not cooperating with local police when the station broadcast a package that included a law enforcement officer reviewing the tape, frame by frame. Policy in most shops dictate that a formal request such as court order or subpoena be issued before materials can be transferred to investigators. Indeed, in some cases, news organizations will fight subpoenas rather than turn over outtakes or unpublished frames.

While KTRK reportedly criticized KHOU's decision to wait for a subpoena before handing the tape over to officials, the videotape turned out to be more essential to news creating than to crime solving. As Devlin observed with rhetorical understatement, "If that tape was so goddamn important, then were are the arrests?"

Some ethical decisions are made on the basis of convention -- journalists and newsrooms go about their jobs in a certain way just because that's the way they do it. Ethics based on convention includes norms of naming some alleged victims of crime and not others and which raw materials get paid for and which do not. The social norm or convention could be changed without any affect on the integrity of news. The convention is important to adhere for no better reason than it is how journalists are expected to operate by other journalists and by those who depend on them.

On the other hand, some ethical decisions are made on the basis of keeping the role related responsibilities of news organizations clearly separate from those of law enforcement or other social institutions. Policies that require court orders or subpoenas before the release of information are vital to keeping news sources and news production safe. If there are any news organizations left that do not have such policies, they should institute them immediately.

But a primary question that can be raised with this story as with so many others is the importance of dramatic pictures, video or still. What happens when these become the deciding factor for calling a story "news". When no arrests have been made months after the alleged incident, even with a videotape filled with potentially identifiable witnesses, one has to wonder just what made this claim news. "There was particularly ugly stuff happening," said Moran, "but that's the question: does it need to be on television?"

In a morally ideal world, the news director would view the tape, determine that it is not news and suggest that the amateur videographer give it to the police. But, in a competitive market, in which such tapes sell for several hundred dollars, stations are sometimes compelled to make news out of thin air time.

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