News Articles

When a reporter is really a cop

Journalistic ethical dilemma played out again in Newark 6/18/2000 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Journalists had barely enough time to take in the actions of a Luxembourg policeman-who, pretending to be a TV cameramen, shot a man allegedly holding 25 children hostage-when a similar incident occurred in Newark, N.J.

The two incidents, and others like them, raise questions about the propriety of such police actions and the level of cooperation by broadcasters. While journalists and commentators recognize that desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, they worry that such subterfuge can compromise journalists' credibility and even endanger them by calling their identity into question.

Only days before the New Jersey incident, the influential Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) had "urge[d] news organizations to resist cooperating in such plans." Addressing the Luxembourg incident, a resolution from its Board of Directors said, "Allowing law-enforcement officials to pose as journalists could endanger journalists covering volatile situations..The world will know less of such events" because of such tactics.

"The fact that it just happened again," noted RTNDA President Barbara Cochran, "demonstrates that, unless journalists speak up, police may get the idea that this is OK. Any journalist who sees a child or anyone in imminent danger would of course help in the rescue. You're a human being first. But we have to make sure police understand why [pretending to be journalists] is a dangerous practice, why it needs to be carefully controlled and why they need to have exhausted every other remedy first."

In Newark, police seized a video camera from a New Jersey Network photographer following a request for an interview from a man suspected of killing his wife and mother-in-law and holding his 9-year-old son hostage. NJN said its crew was alone at the crime scene, narrowing police choices for a camera. The network's camera was returned when a local fire department supplied a substitute, but its videotape was missing. The tape was eventually returned after NJN protested its disappearance to police and prosecutors.

The network did not protest the seizure. "The Newark Police Department seized the camera during emergency circumstances," said a network spokeswoman. "NJN understands that this measure was taken to address the crisis at hand."

John O'Brien, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, was concerned that the use of such tactics could put reporters in harm's way. But he added that "I can't with all good conscience say I would act any differently when a child is threatened with death. We don't condone [such police tactics], and we ask that this be the last option, when there are options."

The Poynter Institute's Bob Steele, who has written guidelines for crisis reporting that are distributed by RTNDA, said, "I'm troubled any time a professional uses deception, whether it's an officer posing as a journalist or a journalist posing as a meat-cutter. In a tactical situation involving life or death, journalists must recognize the unique role and obligations of law enforcement." As a general rule, he said, news organizations do not turn over their equipment to law enforcement. "But I don't believe this should be absolute." Such tactics, he said, should be limited to "a rare circumstance, when every other reasonable alternative to resolving a life-and-death situation has been tried."

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