Independent news organizations serve as watchdogs of government, not lapdogs.
Yet, a King County Superior Court judge, in a ruling that seems to ignore American history as well as good sense, said five news outlets must comply with a subpoena giving the Seattle Police Department unpublished video and photos from a May 30 racial justice protest that turned violent.
This can’t stand.
Journalists, whether working for newspapers, TV stations or other media, simply can’t be perceived by the public as being agents for government or, in this case, the police. The only information, photos or video the police should have access to is what’s been published or aired.
In the ruling last week by Judge Nelson Lee, The Seattle Times and four Seattle television stations were told they are not protected by a Washington state shield law that prevents authorities from obtaining reporters’ unpublished materials. (The Union-Bulletin, like the Yakima Herald-Republic, are owned by The Seattle Times Company, although the news departments are run locally and independently.)
Lee, however, placed some limits on the subpoena. He said police could use the images to identify suspects only in the arson and gun theft investigations. Detectives could not use the photos or video to pursue suspects in vandalism or other lesser crimes.
Judge Lee has totally missed the point. Independent journalism isn’t something that can be parsed from the bench.
When journalists are covering news events they have one aim — get the story for the public. And those talking to or being photographed or videoed by journalists should feel confident the material collected is not accessible by police.
Lee said that the images collected by journalists could be “highly material and relevant” and “critical or necessary” to prove an issue that has a compelling public interest for its disclosure. Getting the stolen weapons off the street was one compelling public interest, Lee added.
We agree the police need to get stolen weapons off the street, but it is the government’s responsibility to collect evidence, not news organizations.
“The media exist in large part to hold governments, including law enforcement agencies, accountable to the public,” said Seattle Times Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores. “We don’t work in concert with government, and it’s important to our credibility and effectiveness to retain our independence from those we cover.”
Yes, it’s as simple as that.
The Times and the four TV stations should continue to fight the subpoena to protect the material gathered while reporting the news.
In doing so, they will also protect independent journalism.