Newspaper’s ethics questioned in man’s flight of fancy

Yesterday’s gyrocopter flight into the heart of Washington, D.C., which illuminated the incompetence of those entrusted to provide air defense over the nation’s capital, has also started a debate in journalism circles around this question: What duty — if any — did a newspaper have to alert authorities?

The Tampa Bay Tribune had been producing a story about pilot Doug Hughes for months, and then apparently sat on it until the flight was underway.

Hughes contacted the paper last year looking for someone to tell his story. He indicated at the time he didn’t have any intention of hurting anyone.

And that was good enough for the newspaper to make it their little secret.

Is that ethical?

Reporter Ben Montgomery, who was in position near the Capitol to report what he knew was coming, said alerting the authorities wasn’t his job.

“We spent hours and hours talking about the ethics of this,” Montgomery tells the Washington Post. “Ultimately, we felt comfortable that he was on the authorities’ radar and that he was not homicidal or suicidal. He had his plan down to a T. Is it our job to call attention to it?”

Fred Brown, longtime head of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the Tampa paper “can’t be complicit in this.”

“I think the newspaper had a responsibility to alert authorities,” he told the Post. “There are too many things [the paper] didn’t know. Was he carrying an incendiary device or a weapon? There are many ways to weaponize [the aircraft] or create a danger.”

After the stunt, Montgomery noted that there was no panic and nobody got hurt. But his tweet before the incident reveals that he was aware someone could be.

But Montgomery was defiant, if honest, about the paper’s reluctance to tell anyone what was about to happen.

“If he chickens out, we don’t have a story,” he said.