Ethics of Using Internet Video of Police Conduct

WBEZ video
WBEZ reposted video it credited to YouTube user King-Dubb.


From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives

By Casey Bukro

Back in 2011, Chicago radio reporter Steve Edwards was covering gang violence and Chicago police for WBEZ when a video surfaced, showing youths menacing a suspect in the back seat of an open police squad car.

Was it ethical to use that video on a WBEZ broadcast?

That’s what Edwards wanted to know when he called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists. The video shows two Chicago police officers standing at the parked blue-and-white SUV with the doors open in Chicago’s violence-prone Humboldt Park area. A group of shouting young men, some possibly minors, taunt a suspect cowering in the back seat and trying to cover his face.

Someone tells the photographer, possibly a gang member, “get a close-up.” The photographer posted the video on YouTube and quickly took it down.

Edwards told AdviceLine that WBEZ had been investigating allegations that Chicago police had a history of subjecting gang members to harm by picking them up, then dropping them off in “enemy” gang territory.

The Chicago Police Department told Edwards that it got a complaint about the incident and released this statement:

“The conduct that is alleged does not reflect the behavior and core values of the men and women of the Chicago Police Department nor our commitment to serve the community in a professional manner.” The department said its internal investigations divisions began an investigation.

In 2013, the Chicago Police Department announced that it had dismissed the two police officers involved in the incident, saying the charges included “unlawfully restraining a youth, transporting him without a valid police purpose to the turf of a gang that would threaten him and making a false statement about the incident to an Internal Affairs detective.”

WBEZ’s website warned: “The footage contains strong language.”

Edwards said that when he contacted AdviceLine in 2011, WBEZ already had posted the video on its website, but he wanted to know if that was ethical.

The AdviceLine consultant at the time, in his report on the case, wrote: “I would have given the advice not to post it.” Blogs and video postings, he reasoned, “do not follow professional journalists’ ethics. … Using this kind of information from unknown sources, especially with minors’ faces, would have led me to advise against posting.”

Edwards today is executive director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. Though WBEZ did not follow AdviceLine’s advice, Edwards remembers the conversation with AdviceLine, which he considered an additional check on WBEZ internal policies.

“I remember it being a helpful conversation,” Edwards said. “We put a lot of thought into this. We explained to our audience why we made that decision [to use the video]. This was not something we arrived at hastily without full consideration. We would not have reached out to AdviceLine unless we wanted to give this a full hearing.”

Edwards recalled also contacting The Poynter Institute on the question, and getting a different answer.

He says AdviceLine’s talking points were constructive in several ways. “One is a clear, bright line, yes or no” on specific questions. “The other is whether you are asking the right questions, and the potential impacts that need to be explored. The third is instilling a discipline within reporters and editors to be thoughtful, reflective and to be consulting others when they are encountering challenging questions about reporting.

“It’s not just what to think about something, but how to think about something which is of significance.”

Cate Cahan is projects and investigations editor at WBEZ, and took an active part in deciding whether to repost the video.

“We thought it was in the public interest for people to understand what happened here,” Cahan said. “My concern was for young people; gang signs are thrown up.” The youth in the squad car was not identifiable. The two policemen in the video were “known in the community and very respected,” she said.

Important details: The video was taken in a public street. And at the time, it was a touchy issue to post videos of police officers. Now it’s more common.

“The crowd was jumbled. We used parts of the video. We didn’t obscure the faces, but other TV stations did. We did not obscure the police officers’ faces.”

“We did have some trouble with the police department,” Cahan said. “They came here and asked for the video. I said no. We said we’re going to be posting it and you can get it there. They were very forceful and very polite.”

Like Edwards, Cahan approved of AdviceLine’s approach.

“You were helpful in talking through the questions that a news organization has to ask itself,” she said. “It is helpful to gather different points of view when you’re trying to make that kind of call.”

Police departments across the country now are accused of police brutality and coverups in the deaths of people in custody. Chicago can be a tough town, and its police have a tough reputation. In this case, the Chicago Police showed it could be equally tough on officers who fall short of the department’s motto, to serve and protect.

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