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Live coverage of Boston manhunt raises ethical questions

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Kelly McBride Kelly McBride
Law enforcement officials in Watertown, MA search door to door for bombing suspect Law enforcement officials in Watertown, MA search door to door for bombing suspect

Endless live coverage of the Boston bombing manhunt Friday was at times riveting, informative, breathless... and if you believe the FBI and Boston police, dangerous to law enforcement officers who were trying to capture one or more of the most dangerous fugitives in modern times.

At 9:23 the FBI Press Office tweeted this media alert from Boston police: "WARNING:Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched."

It's not clear what impact that had on television news coverage by CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and other networks who saturated the streets of Boston with journalists in pursuit of the story.

"I think there are like a thousand cameras in Boston so I don't want to condemn all thousand journalism institutions," said Kelly McBride, who teaches media ethics at the Poynter Institute.

McBride said it's impossible to make snap ethical judgments about how the networks were covering a number of active crime scenes with live cameras.

On the other hand, McBride said for networks to blindly follow a blanket directive from police like the one tweeted by the FBI would be wrong.

"You're not a partner with police, you're a partner with the public," said McBride. "You're trying to uphold public safety and you need to make decisions as a journalist based on how you best serve the public."

News Channel 8 and a number of other media organizations in the Tampa Bay area have standing policies in effect when it comes to police SWAT situations. In News Channel 8's case, the default decision is to not broadcast live reports that would reveal tactical positions during active police standoffs.

"I don't ever want to say there's a hard and fast rule," said news director Don North. "But it would take something extraordinary to show a tactical operation in play."

McBride said the driving factor in making journalistic decisions about live coverage of tactical situations should be public safety, not following police mandates designed to protect officers from harm. 

"That really becomes the framework for how you make decisions," said McBride. "Rather than having a rule obedient framework where you just have a rule and you never break that rule."

St. Petersburg Police spokesman Mike Puetz recalled the local police standoff January 24, 2011 that resulted in the fatal shooting of fugitive Hydra Lacey and two police officers, as well as the wounding of a U.S. Marshal.  Puetz said live TV news coverage was in play that day.

"We know for a fact that during that particular incident he was talking to people who were watching television coverage and they were relaying information to him," Puetz said.  In that incident Puetz said police knew that during the standoff Lacey was talking to friends on his cell phone, who were relaying information to him.

In that situation, Puetz said nothing Lacey heard changed the outcome, but he said St. Petersburg police discourages live coverage of police positions as general matter of safety.

"I think we have an understanding with the media for the most part when we have a barricaded armed suspect and we got officers moving in close to that building," Puetz said.

"We're not partners with police," said North. But his standing policy in SWAT situations is to do precisely what Boston police asked today, while not ruling out a conscious decision to go live if appropriate.

"You've got to use judgment," North said.

Puetz said the dramatic events in Boston unfolding on live television may help improvement judgment for journalists as well as police. "When we have incidents like this we learn lessons from them and I think that's on both sides of this," said Puetz. 

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