Should the media help police?

Since Minneapolis had a good chance of welcoming anarchists the Democratic National Convention in 2012, today is a good day to revisit the role of the media in the 2008 Republican National Convention.

It comes from former NPR ombudsman Jeff Dvorkin, who wonders whether the news media and law enforcement are occasionally too tight. In a blog post today, Dvorkin applauds Utah newspapers who refused to run a list of individuals, who are allegedly in the country illegally.

He says that’s in stark contrast to newspapers in Toronto where the G20 summit brought out the anarchists. Subsequently, the police asked the media to publish photos of people allegedly responsible for the some violence and damage, to help identify and catch them.


Some photos show individuals clearly in the act of trashing a police car. That would appear to be enough evidence to convict. (I can imagine what a good defense lawyer might say: “Your honor, my client was only trying to retrieve her property which had been thrown onto the roof of the police vehicle…”).

Others photos are “head and shoulder” shots released by the Toronto police. They don’t reveal any evidence of law-breaking, beyond the say-so of the authorities.

While the damage to property in parts of downtown Toronto was considerable and the actions of hooligans, reprehensible, is it the role of the media to act as police agents? Are reporters being sufficiently skeptical and asking the police those four most important words: “How do you know?” Or is this an instance when citizen journalism descends into vigilante journalism?

This sounds a little too familiar for comfort. In the aftermath of the St. Paul violence in 2008, local authorities did the same thing.

St. Paul Police and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office released this photo, for example:

And the media — and that includes News Cut, for the record — printed it. The difference, however, is that in this case the police weren’t looking for the ID of the attacker; they were looking for the ID of the victim.

But is that different from Dvorkin’s complaint. Is this an ethical violation?

  • Kassie

    First, there is a big difference between an anonomyous list of “illegal immigrants” and something from a police department.

    But, police ask, and media comply, all the time for putting up pictures of bank robbers, child abductors and, today, people stealing wallets from purses and using the credit cards to buy Target gift cards. While MPR wouldn’t carry this story, it isn’t much of a story without pictures, it seems all the other local media outlets are carrying it.

    The police are tipping their hand when they bring photos to the public. They let the person they are looking for know they are on to them, but don’t have any idea who they are. I’m guessing it is a last case scenario and need to catch the people they are looking for. But what if those people are innocent? I assume the police would be sued, but could the media outlets also be sued? Deformation of character? Libel?

    It is a tough call and, to me, an ethical conundrum.

  • BJ

    I would think that if a photo was taken and showed a crime that the media would be required, by ethics, to give them to the police.

    If it were a murder that they happened to have caught on film would there be a question?

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    That photo of the trashed police car raised a lot of eyebrows in real time. Given how quick the Bob Fletcher led combined peace officers were to arrest protesters, it defied belief that protesters were allowed to trash a police car in full view of large numbers of police.

    The belief then, and one that I hold now, is that the protesters were actually undercover cops trying to sucker other protesters into committing property damage.

    Aside from a broken plate glass window downtown (for which a protester was arrested and tried), the RNC protests were remarkably violence and property damage free.

    For two years now I’ve been wondering why no local media ever investigated this story. Bob, is there some reason why MPR can’t dig into this one?

  • JackU

    I’m sorry but I don’t think this is some sort of new phenomenon. Crime reporting has been a mainstay of the newspaper business probably for as long as there have been newspapers. I suspect that during that time there have always been “requests” made by the police through the papers for help tracking down the suspects in a particular crime.

  • Kassie

    A current news story is that the police are asking for help in finding three men who they believed duct taped a woman up, threw her in a car trunk and kidnapped her. Media is complying of course to help the police. I think this case is 100% cut and dry that they media should be helping because there is a woman in immediate danger.

  • Duke Powell

    I’ve been reading Mark Gisleson:s web comments for years. I don’t agree with him much, but always respected the fact that he always signed his posts with his full name.

    Today, however, he offers this howler concerning the St. Paul RNC. In the third comment above he states:

    “The belief then, and one that I hold now, is that the protesters were actually undercover cops trying to sucker other protesters into committing property damage”

    Well, I was there. You got this wrong, Mark. Really wrong.

    BTW, I also witnessed the Lisa Goodman fiasco when she was arrested. The YouTube video of that event was fanciful, at best.

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    Rep. Powell, how then do you explain the pictures of “protesters” attacking that police car in full view of assembled police who did nothing about it?

    How do you get away with trashing a police car while the police are watching you? I’d love to hear another explanation. And why did this story sit neglected for so long?

    I appreciate your service to this community but did YOU witness the vandalism on the police car? If so, what’s your account of what happened? I wasn’t down there and know nothing about the Goodman arrest, but I did get a first hand report on the police car vandalism from a reporter who talked to protesters who said no one knew who the vandals were, or why the police didn’t stop them.