Last week's report from a Washington-area TV station that a tarot card with the message to police that "I am God" had been found near one of the sniper shootings there caused the police chief to blast the news media and accuse it of endangering the investigation.
"Do you want the police to work this case, or do you want Channel 9 to do it?" asked a clearly angry Charles Moose, chief of police in Montgomery County, Md., referring to Gannett-owned WUSA(TV) Washington, which broke the tarot-card story.
Moose suggested that such revelations could "hinder our ability to bring this person or these people into custody."
It was reported later by the Washington Post
that the card included another message, asking that the card not be shared with the media. Some detectives felt that reporting the card's existence could jeopardize the dialogue with the possible killer.
Clearly, not all police agreed. WUSA News Director Dave Roberts noted that "the information was obtained from several credible sources active in the ongoing investigation. We made contact with appropriate police authorities, and a request to withhold the information was never made by the authorities." WUSA said sources for Mike Buchanan's report "are active police professionals, intimately familiar with the case. Some spoke to 9 News out of a belief that more information should be made available to the public than officials have released so far."
Poynter Institute broadcast journalism ethicist Al Tompkins commented that "just because someone doesn't ask you to withhold doesn't mean you're finished with the obligation to know the short-term and long-term effect of your reporting. On the other hand, we should continuously try to find ways to report the information that we know. It forces us into a series of conversations. There's always conflict between [a journalist's duties in] minimizing harm and in telling the truth."
A poll taken on WUSA's Web site reported that 75% of respondents through Thursday disagreed with the station's decision to report the discovery of the tarot card.
Moose has a history of clashing with the media. In 1998, as the Portland, Ore., police chief, he lashed out at local coverage of a standoff with a cop-killer and accused the media of potentially tipping off the shooting suspect, who killed himself rather than be captured (B&C, March 9, 1998). Three officers were shot, one fatally.
Though Portland news execs conceded that some strategic movements were inadvertently aired, police later acknowledged that the death and injuries could not be blamed on the coverage. The controversy led to a dialogue and agreement between police and local media on crisis coverage.