Journalists Helping Police: Is It Unethical?

News helicopter
Police hitched a ride on a news helicopter in pursuit of a shooting suspect. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By Casey Bukro

People sometimes think police and reporters are alike. Both chase criminals and other kinds of crooks to protect the public.

But they’re not the same, and a case involving a news helicopter in Boulder, Colorado, made that clear.

Boulder police were chasing a shooting suspect when they asked reporters aboard a helicopter shared by Denver TV stations for an airborne lift at the scene to search for the suspect.

A police officer boarded the copter. From his aerial vantage point, the officer was able to nab a suspect in cooperation with a SWAT team on the ground.

A police spokeswoman called the assist instrumental in the arrest, according to the Boulder Daily Camera, and noted that the news team got direct access to the police action.

Boulder police requested the ride from reporters after failing to get assistance from Denver Police or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A win-win, or an ethics foul?

From his aerial vantage point, the officer was able to nab a suspect in cooperation with a SWAT team on the ground.

Paul Voakes, the University of Colorado’s journalism department chair, said the situation falls into a “gray area” of media ethics.

Clayton Sandell, an ABC News correspondent, wrote on Twitter: “News organizations should decline this request. Journalists are not agents of law enforcement.

The Denver Post took it a step further. It conducts online polls of reader opinions, a feature that allows the newspaper to rapidly gauge public reactions to key issues. It’s one way to connect a newspaper with its readership in the digital world.

The Post asked its readers: “Should it be considered a violation of journalistic ethics for a news helicopter to aid police during a manhunt for a suspected criminal?”

The result: The Post got 1,910 responses. A majority of them, 1,678 or 87.85 percent, voted “No.” The minority, 232 or 12.15 percent of them, voted “Yes.” In other words, it was OK with the public for journalists to help police, and not an ethics infraction.

That’s an interesting outcome. If journalists were voting,  the outcome could have been different. Helping police can be considered a conflict of interest. Journalists cover police all the time and a working relationship seen as too close or too friendly could be seen as showing favoritism, and wrong.

The Society of Professional Ethics code of ethics says: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”

‘Journalists are not agents of law enforcement.’

But the local media get high marks for bringing the helicopter incident to the attention of the public and identifying it as a potential ethics problem. Another section of the SPJ code says, “Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”

The helicopter incident played out against a national backdrop of public discontent with police brutality and use of deadly force. Amnesty International USA reports that hundreds of men and women are killed by police each year in the United States. Amnesty is calling for a nationwide review of police use of laws, policies, training and practices, including accountability.

It’s a touchy and sensitive issue: Hostility toward police in some areas of the country is strong. The Denver Post poll, however, suggests that in some quarters the public is willing to work with police and do not consider it unethical for journalists to help them.

The poll is a reflection of local sentiment. Other areas where attitudes toward police are more antagonistic could have produced different results. Police are not vilified everywhere.

If the news team had said “No” to the cops, denying access to the helicopter, that would have raised another set of ethical issues. Denial would have triggered questions about the balancing act between being a good citizen and being a police booster. But that’s not what happened.

What do you think? Offer an opinion.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.


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