When Des Moines police searched for a missing woman earlier this month,
they had a helicopter available. Not theirs; who-tv's.
In an unusual move, the Des Moines station has offered its news
chopper-the only one in the market-for police use. Police in
various parts of the country have hitched rides on broadcasters 'helicopters in
emergencies, but the unsolicited offer from the station is rare, if not unique.
While cooperation is encouraged in the interest of public safety, journalism
ethicists generally frown on news organs' working too closely with police for
fear of being seen as an arm of the law, and potentially compromising the
independence of the press.
"I don't see a conflict," said Mike Bock, president and general manager
of the station. "We would never do anything to jeopardize our ability to report
For Bock, the offer is rooted in the station's commitment to the
community, but, he adds, "we're not offering it categorically, for any given
use or time." As WHO-TV sees it, in addition to meeting a civic call, there's
the opportunity for a front-row seat at some police-driven news events.
Police will have no say in the station's use of its own cameras or its
tapes, Bock says. And if there's a conflict with another news event, the
station will make the call as to whether to respond to police requests "based
on our journalistic values."
Bock says he intends to consult journalism ethics sources, such as the
Poynter Institute, for guidance. Poynter's Bob Steele notes that "the goals of
law enforcement are different from the goals of journalism. It's extremely
difficult to reconcile those goals. There's bound to be tension and conflict.
Journalists should not ignore their role as citizens in the community, but
their professional obligations include being independent when reporting on
government and law enforcement."
Dave Busiek, news director at KCCI(TV) Des Moines, says who-tv's chopper
has pushed his station toward one of its own. Would kcci make a similar
arrangement with police? "I don't think we would," he said. "It's important to
have a good working relationship with law enforcement, but, to me, that crosses
Kcci would, Busiek said, consider aiding police as other stations do, on
a case-by-case basis. "Common sense has to prevail, but it's best not to blur
the lines" between police and journalists, he said.