Witness to an execution

KQED sues to videotape capital punishment

If the state is executing people on the public’s behalf, then journalists have a right and obligation to serve as the public’s witness.

By Michael Schwarz

Michael Schwarz is executive producer and director of Current Affairs for KQED-TV in San Francisco.

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

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 3 (March 1991), p. 6.


California hasn’t executed a prisoner in 24 years — but the next time it does, the public may be able to witness the event on television. Public station KQED in San Francisco is suing the state for the right to videotape executions. A trial has been set for March 25, 1991.

California’s policy now prevents journalists from using the tools of their trade in reporting major news events. The state forbids the use not only of cameras or tape recorders, but also of pens, pencils, notebooks or sketchpads.

The death penalty poses difficult moral dilemmas: What is the appropriate punishment for crimes that violate every imaginable standard of decency?

Will the imposition of the penalty on one person deter other criminals from killing? Can it be justified as appropriate and fitting the crime? Or does the death penalty violate the state’s own standards of civility?

Television coverage of executions can help answer these questions because the camera can serve as a neutral witness: It can see exactly what any person would see from the witness room — no more or no less. The camera can document the event from beginning to end, capturing it exactly as it happens. This is the purest form of reporting; the camera can present the event without interpretation.

In contrast, print or radio reporters can only tell the story by putting it into their own words — an act which requires them to interpret what they have seen and opens the door to incomplete or inaccurate reporting.

But is it right to show the execution of a condemned person on television? I believe it is. A broadcast journalist’s job is to tell his or her audience what is happening in the world — particularly what our government is doing on our behalf.

When the story is about the ultimate sanction of our criminal justice system, we not only have the right to witness the punishment, but the obligation to do so and to understand it in the context of the crime for which it was imposed. How better to form an opinion about the appropriateness of the death penalty than to see it given a context and enacted according to the provisions of law?

Public reaction to our lawsuit seems about evenly divided for and against it. Most interesting, about half the people who support the lawsuit also favor capital punishment, while the other half oppose the death penalty. People who oppose the lawsuit are similarly divided in their opinions about execution itself.

What about the rights of the condemned person? What if a mass murderer asks that his execution not be witnessed by a television audience?

No prisoner has a legal right to privacy in the moment of execution. In California, as many as 50 people witness the event that deprives a prisoner of the right to life itself. Nonetheless, I believe that basic human decency has a necessary place in any journalistic decisions, and thus would not assert a First Amendment right over a condemned person’s request that his or her execution not be broadcast.

What about the possibility that children might witness an execution? The New York Times recently reprinted Eddie Adams’s famous picture of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a Vietcong officer by shooting a bullet through his brain. I remember watching footage of that event as a teenager, just as I remember watching John F. Kennedy’s hideous murder and Jack Ruby’s assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald. I wonder how many children might see today’s images of the dead and maimed from the Gulf war, or, indeed, might witness the nightly orgies of violence on network primetime TV.

There is always a risk that children may be exposed to images of death and violence. Broadcast journalists cannot eliminate that risk but we can take measures to reduce it. For this reason, KQED would not show an execution live. We would delay the broadcast until an hour when children are unlikely to be watching television on their own. We would also begin the program with an explanation of what we were about to do and why so viewers could change the channel, turn off their sets, or tell children to leave the room.

Fine, some critics say. You may act responsibly, but what about other stations that would be tempted to sensationalize the event to boost their own ratings?

My answer to that is simply that every journalist has to be able to live with his or her own acts, and to take responsibility for them. First Amendment rights do not apply only to those who earn or merit them.

The issue in this lawsuit is really a simple one: should government officials decide how a news story is covered, or should journalists? If the court decides in favor of journalists, then it will be up to all of us to exercise the right we have established in a way that brings credit to our profession.

Television is not inherently good or bad. The people who practice the craft of broadcast journalism make it the way it is.