Identifying what’s right

Photographer’s ID used in hostage release

The rules about journalists not actively assisting police can seem meaningless when a life is at stake.

By William Thomas, Jr.

William Thomas, Jr. is executive editor of The Oakland Press, Pontiac, MI.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 5 (August 1990), p. 5.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

The nice thing about armchair debate over ethics is that no one ever dies.

But once theory hits the street, reality sets in. There’s no time to contemplate the fine points.

That was the case July 18 when an Oakland Press photographer’s ID card was used in a ploy by an undercover cop to keep the attention of a man holding a butcher knife on an elderly widow.

Since then, there has been much tongue-clucking and indignation from theorists over, in the words of one, a “horrifying” ethical violation of our “craft.”

Our involvement in the episode was criticized by Richard Cunningham, a university “ethicist” in New York as a “terrible disservice” to journalism.

Another purist, FineLine contributing editor Deni Elliott, advised from her Dartmouth tower that the hostage situation shouldn’t have been covered at all and, because we tolerated police posing as press, we damaged the “professional integrity and credibility of journalists.”

Rubbish.

Here’s what happened.

A few hours after his release from jail, Tyras Brandywine randomly selected the home of 76-year-old Jennie Miller who lived alone in a quiet Pontiac neighborhood. He forced his way inside, grabbed a 10-inch butcher knife, sliced her hand to the bone and threatened to kill her. He tied himself to the terrified woman.

Police talked with the man through a smashed-out living room window. There was a shotgun in the house, but the intruder fortunately didn’t know that.

Keep in mind this was a nut who could kill a little old lady at any second. Keeping him calm and talking was the key to keeping his hostage alive.

Brandywine told cops he wanted to talk to a reporter. Reluctant to let a reporter close to the house, they decided to have an undercover officer pose as a reporter to buy time, and hopefully, save lives.

Police asked our photographer Doug Bauman for his company ID card which Bauman gave, thinking they wanted proof of his identification. They later explained they intended to use the ID to convince the man that he was talking to a reporter. Bauman had no problem with that.

The charade worked for awhile. Then he wanted to see a camera.

The cop asked Bauman to come nearer to the house in clear view of the man, to further convince him that he was talking to a reporter.

Assured by the photographer that he would not be in any danger — he was given a bullet-proof vest — I OK’d his involvement in the ruse by radio and went to the scene.

Brandywine stayed near the window talking with a cop and looking at the photographer stationed with his camera a couple hundred feet away.

As he talked to the supposed reporter at the front, other cops crawled into a utility room through a side window.

The man was calming down. It looked like a resolution was at hand.

Then suddenly for some reason he became agitated. He grabbed the woman and held the knife at her throat.

The cops crowded the window, warning him. Then two shots and he was dead within minutes. The woman was carried out, shaken but alive.

How much discussion went into allowing the ID to be used and permitting the photographer to join the act? Very little. There simply was no time.

Seconds were ticking. The woman was bleeding. The attacker could finish the job in an instant.

We could have refused to give up the ID. We could have launched into a debate over a cop impersonating a reporter. We could have cried foul from afar over the “horrifying” subterfuge being perpetrated on the public. We could have left the scene, ignoring the event.

We could have watched as Jennie Miller was carried from her home in a body bag.

Certainly, after twenty-five years in the business I had qualms — ethical, legal, you name it — about a cop using a photographer’s ID. And God only knows the issues that went through my head during the minute or two I had to consider allowing the photographer to work with police.

There has been some discussion in our newsroom. Most of the staff is comfortable with what happened, including the photographer involved. A few have reservations, arguing it was our role to cover the event, not become involved in it.

I told them that IDs and press credentials are not to be surrendered willy-nilly, I also made sure they understood they should talk to editors about situations involving ethical issues. But when the book can’t be followed, as in this case, they have to use their best judgment.

Interestingly, no one suggested that we should have stayed away. Said one staffer, “Does anyone really think that guy would have walked away if the press wouldn’t have shown up? He wasn’t interested in press coverage. He wanted to hurt someone. Damn it, it’s a story.”

And, as I told a Detroit News writer later, the bottom line is the woman is still alive.

Maybe the press helped.

 

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