Line Crossed

Published: December 11, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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What if your neighbors were suspected of being involved in a mass shooting? And after the police and FBI had searched their home, the media were allowed to go through the residence, and among the items broadcast live were photos of you and your family; how would you react?


In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting rampage, the home where Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik lived was searched by local police and FBI for clues as to a possible connection to ISIS or other terrorists groups. In the aftermath, the landlord, in his infinite wisdom, opened the home to the media.

As The New York Times reported (Dec. 5), “They perused closets and cabinets. A television reporter asked his producer to check the family’s calendar to see if anything had been marked down for Dec. 2 (it did not appear so). Some news channels showed live images from inside the home; one network had a commentator walking through with a camera crew, narrating the tour from room to room. The New York Times also had a reporter and a photographer inside the home.

“But instead of a cache of weapons or parts for making explosives — which the authorities had removed — they found what would have looked like a relatively normal cluttered household…”

In a video report that ran live from inside the suspects’ home, an MSNBC reporter holds up a series of photos, perhaps taken by the couple, showing two individuals. However, the control room at MSNBC did not bother to blur out the people in the photos, (as I have done). What instantly troubled me was the fact that the individuals in the photos could, in fact, be innocent parties to the actions of the couple. Apparently, my concerns were noted by others.

“On Friday morning, after the authorities were finished, the owner, Doyle Miller… allowed journalists inside the house (though not the garage, which the authorities say was where the bombs were made).

“ ‘That just opened the flood,’ Mr. Miller’s wife, Judy, said in a brief interview. “It got way out of hand.’

“After the criticism emerged of the live coverage, CNN and Fox News said in statements that they had been allowed inside by the landlord and were cautious about what they showed on air. CNN said it avoided ‘close-up footage of any material that could be considered sensitive or identifiable, such as photos or ID cards,’ and Fox said the same.

“On MSNBC, however, the reporter on the scene displayed photographs. ‘Let’s not show the child, Kerry,’ the anchor, Andrea Mitchell, told the reporter, Kerry Sanders.

“ ‘Let’s cut away from that.’ The network later apologized, saying it ‘should not have been aired without review.’ ”

Precisely; nonetheless, the genie was out of the bottle.

And this is why I have advocated, for some time, that all media need to have access to an ethicist to be able to help guide decision-making when it comes to issues like this.

“Toni Hulbert, a neighbor here in Redlands, was watching CNN when she saw the drama unfolding on live television just two blocks from her home of 40 years,” The Times report continues.

“Since she had arrived, reporters asked if she knew the family, with some showing her photographs they had taken of family members, including the infant daughter. ‘I don’t want to see a baby exploited,’ she said.

“It felt ‘like a violation,’ said her husband, Rick Hulbert, a retired Redlands police officer.

While some may argue that the Farooks violated the families of the 14 people they murdered, this, however, is about journalistic standards; and the media in their ever-present need to supply more and more details, crossed a big line, here.

“Although MSNBC was not the first crew to enter the home, we did have the first live shots from inside,” MSNBC said in a statement, adding that it had the permission of the landlord to enter. “We regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review.”

How should it have been handled?

Reporters can act as they have in the past: interview someone who has entered the home for a description.

“Kelly McBride, a media ethicist and vice president at Poynter, a journalism institute, told The [Washington] Post that the live broadcasts like those on Friday amounted to ‘an act of voyeurism instead of journalism.’

“Assuming that they had legal permission to be there, it was ‘perfectly reasonable’ for reporters to go in the home and gather information, McBride said. But part of their ethical obligation to the public includes providing context for that information. ‘Broadcasting live precludes that,’ she added.

“ ‘If you consider the journalist who’s standing on the threshold of this property, his primary duty is to inform his audience to the best that he is able with information that is accurate, verified and in context,’ McBride said.

“But that’s only the first step. She said journalists also must figure out ‘what portions of that information are relevant and how they’re relevant. And that takes another level of reporting from outside of the house.’ ”

This is another example of why the media needs to have an in-house ethics specialist, someone who can help clarify the right and the wrong in covering stories.


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