Friday, October 29, 2010

Suppressing News at Police Request

Thanks everyone for the great questions and discussion on Thursday. You all voiced some intriguing opinions regarding where journalists stand when it comes to withholding information from the public based on police request.

The Raoul Moat case was interesting because of the way Moat specifically mentioned media coverage being responsible for his heightened anger-and the possibility of him killing again. If police shared this information with you, what would you have done? Although it (thankfully) doesn’t happen everyday, in situations like these journalists are faced with enormous ethical and professional questions. What if the media would have continued reporting on Moat’s story? What if someone else (aside from Moat) had been killed? Would coverage of the incident potentially have helped the investigation? What if someone in the public would have been able to identify the killer from news broadcasts and helped police apprehend their fugitive?

A serious conflict of interest is encountered when media outlets need to weigh their responsibility to inform against the potential threat to public safety. And it is often left to journalists and editors to trust their gut, factoring their own morality against their responsibility to report. Newspaper reporter Richard Halicks was told by mentors and editors when weighing the decision to run a story about an attempt on President Bush’s life in 1988, “ ‘Our job is to write and print stories in timely and responsible fashion, not to assist in criminal investigations, nor to anticipate the actions of madmen. If publication hampered the investigation, that wasn’t really the newspaper’s problem,’ they said.”

Not a problem professionally, perhaps. But morally? If someone were to be injured or killed—potentially due to a news outlet’s coverage—can reporters and their editors sleep at night, confident in their decision to run the story and uphold the fundamentals of their profession? I think the best answer varies based on circumstance, and although journalists are reporters with a public duty to inform, they are also human, and constantly need to weigh the impacts of their work on the safety and well-being of the public. Journalists hold a powerful tool in their pens and cameras, capable of not only helping and informing, but also harming. In situations where people’s well-being may be threatened by the publication of information, I think it is an undeniable human tendency to push professional principles aside, consider the circumstance, and take whatever course of action can best protect others.


The article in the UK Guardian announcing the media blackout during the police manhunt for Raoul Moat: Raoul Moat news blackout requested after threat to kill public

And the SkyNews report regarding Raoul Moat's threats against the public, brought on by what Moat perceived as inaccurate media reporting:
Raoul Moat: Secret Death Threats Revealed

Here’s an older, but equally interesting case where reporter Jon Hall for the Miami News was investigating a serial killer in south Florida during the mid 1970s. An excellent example of police requesting the suppression of news—and a journalist’s decision to ignore them.
“Stop this is a warning…Suppressing news at police request.”


  1. Your presentation brought up some interesting points. When I read your post, I started thinking of journalism as the Force from Star Wars (in that it can be used for good or bad.) I agree that there are situations in which journalists should consider the safety of the public before they publish a story.

    Did you come across a case in which someone was injured or killed because the media released sensitive information?

  2. I think it probably depends on the situation, but it also depends on the reporters. A lot of them go to work as a journalist, and a lot of them come home as a regular person. I don't think I would run a story if someone was going to die (a specific someone, not just a threat that SOMEONE is going to die), but I think that the news is important all the same.

  3. Thanks for the comments. No Julia, I wasn't able to find an example in which the media's release of information against police request directly led to someone being hurt. In the cases involving journalists being kidnapped by militants in Iraq and Afghanistan however (particularly the Daniel Pearl case), it has been argued that the media's release of information surrounding the kidnappings led to journalists being killed--hence news outlet's editors policy of cooperating with media blackouts in such cases these days.