Why the Daily will not turn over riot pictures to the police

Bastiaan Vanacker

In the wake of the hockey riots, a letter appeared in The Minnesota Daily last week in which reader Benjamin Koch expressed anger and disbelief with the fact that local media declared they were unwilling to release unaired footage that could help identify rioters.

His frustration is understandable; every reasonable person wants to see the hockey hooligans held accountable for their deplorable actions. Why should local media such as the Daily, who after all are here to serve the community, not do exactly that: help the University community to identify those who brought harm to its reputation and infrastructure? Why not turn over published or unpublished photographs to the police?

While this argument might be logically sound, it is flawed on a semantic level. “Serving a community” does not mean news media should help law enforcement to do its job. News media serve their communities by providing them with fair and balanced information, and they can only do that if they maintain independence.

It is the media’s responsibility to report truthfully, not put people behind bars. By working closely with law enforcement, the media risks losing its independence and, ultimately, its credibility.

A story ran Thursday in the Daily about a student allegedly being hit by a rubber police bullet, possibly raising issues of the methods the police used containing the riots. Regardless of these claims’ merits, how could readers perceive the Daily as covering this issue fairly if it were working together with the police in helping them identify rioters? They couldn’t.

As journalism student and photographer Katy Easthagen wrote in an unpublished Daily letter to the editor, “To turn over video/film without a subpoena would mean that the photojournalists were acting as an agent for law enforcement and as such no longer independent news gatherers. That would be a complete breach of their journalistic ethics. This is a fundamental First Amendment issue; journalists are free and independent from the government and its agencies.”

While there might be some short-term benefits to turning over photographs – assuming that this would really help bring rioters to justice – in the long run this would prove to be detrimental.

It might cause the police to rely on journalists to get their information, rather than to come up with procedures to better monitor and identify crowds. It could also create more dangerous working conditions for reporters, as Easthagen points out. “In a situation such as last weekend’s riot, if there were the perception that photographers’ images would be turned over to the police then it is possible that the violence aimed at inanimate objects could’ve been turned on photographers.”

Granted, there might be circumstances under which it might be appropriate for news media to cooperate with law enforcement. Last year, for example, a BBC correspondent testified against the former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. She deemed it was her moral duty to share the horror she witnessed with the tribunal. However, her decision to testify has drawn a fair amount of criticism among her colleagues. Other reporters, such as retired Washington Post reporter John Randal, have successfully resisted subpoenas to testify at the war crimes tribunal.

So while there arguably could be instances in which the media’s cooperation with law enforcement or authorities could be justified because it could prevent some imminent harm, save lives or generate some other greater good, these instances are few and far between, and media organizations should be extremely cautious in determining when – if ever – it is appropriate to cross the line between journalism and law enforcement. Crossing this line will always come at a cost.

This clear separation between law enforcement and journalists is not only a well-established journalistic practice, but has also been recognized by the courts. Many states have shield laws: statutes that shield reporters from subpoenas from law enforcement.

Minnesota’s shield law is one of the strongest in the country since it was amended in 1998 to also include unpublished notes, photographs and unaired videotape. Disclosure of these kinds of materials is now only warranted in certain criminal cases or in defamation cases to which the media outlet is a party.

This amended shield law was voted in to law in the wake of a 1996 Minnesota Supreme Court decision in State v. Turner that had narrowed down the scope of protection of the existing shield law to almost nothing. Thanks to successful lobbying efforts by the media community, the Legislature amended the shield law, providing the media with a legal framework that guarantees them a high degree of independence from law enforcement.

Turning over riot pictures to the police would not only be an abdication of this hard-earned privilege, it would also be harmful to the Daily’s independence and credibility.

The Daily has not been asked by the police to turn over riot pictures. One riot picture from the Daily, however, appeared shortly on the University police Web site. It was removed promptly upon request from the Daily’s editor in chief.

Bastiaan Vanacker is The Minnesota Daily’s readers’ representative. He welcomes comments at

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