A judge in King County last week not only made journalists’ jobs harder, but he put them in danger on the streets. Higher courts should immediately intervene to ensure that a free press can continue to function without serving a dual role as unwilling police informant.
The case involved five news organizations – The Seattle Times newspaper and four television stations – that took photos and videos of protesters engaging in violence and property damage on May 30. As is normal with visual journalism, they shot more images than actually went to print or online.
The crimes that day included setting fire to police vehicles and stealing police firearms. The Seattle Police Department investigated, and when it couldn’t identify all of the suspects, it subpoenaed the unpublished content of the news outlets.
They said no, but now a judge has ordered them to comply. It’s a tremendously problematic precedent for the freedom of the press.
For journalists to do their work successfully, they must have the trust of the public. People need to know that when they talk to a reporter or are photographed, that content will be handled with integrity and professional ethical standards. That’s especially true with sources who wish to remain anonymous because they could get in trouble for sharing sensitive information that the public needs to know. Deep Throat probably wouldn’t have talked to Woodward and Bernstein about Watergate if they couldn’t protect him.
If law enforcement can demand access to press notes and images, trust evaporates. The media involuntarily becomes an arm of the police.
Worse, under those circumstances, reporters are placed in real danger when they cover protests and riots. Protesters who view the press as in cahoots with the police might turn their violent impulses against reporters and photographers documenting events.
“Even with the limitations the judge placed in his ruling, this is a clear violation of the media’s right to gather and report the news independent of government oversight and interference,” Society of Professional Journalists National President Patricia Gallagher Newberry said. “Reporters already face skepticism and distrust from some protesters. This ruling will only escalate those feelings and could put journalists in greater physical danger.”
Washington has a press shield law that supposedly protects the media from these sorts of government and law enforcement infringements. The judge in the case concluded that there was sufficient public interest and that the images were “highly material and relevant” and “critical or necessary” to justify overruling the shield law. Those are the code words that create a gaping loophole.
The police didn’t just ask for a few specific images. They demanded every image taken over a 90-minute period across several blocks of downtown Seattle. That’s not a targeted investigation that might rise to exemption under the shield law. It’s a fishing expedition by a department desperate to show results when its investigation has stalled.
The press cannot hold government accountable and serve as watchdog if it is compelled to turn over unpublished records when the police demand them. One judge has ruled. We hope that the news outlets in the case appeal so that other judges can restore press independence.
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