Seattle Station Fails to Air Video of Police Beating, Firestorm Follows

Journalists often call us at The Poynter Institute to ask questions about when they should air or post controversial video or publish photos that show violence.

A case in Seattle shows that not airing those images can cause problems, too.

Freelance photographer Jud Morris captured images of police kicking an innocent man, with one telling him was going to “beat the … Mexican piss” out of him. The video and audio were clear and the video left no question about what happened. Cops had the wrong guy and let him go after stomping him a couple of times.

The photographer took the video back to KCPQ-TV in Seattle, known as Q13 Fox, but KCPQ didn’t immediately air it. The photographer said he was told by news management that the station had no intention of airing the video because the beating was not “egregious.” Morris posted the video on YouTube, after which, he says, the station told him not to come in for his shift.

He then sold the video to competitor KIRO-TV for $100.

In an interview with KIRO, Morris gave his version of what happened.

On Monday, Q-13 issued a statement denying that its cooperation with police on a show called “Washington’s Most Wanted” was the reason it withheld the video.

The statement included this passage:

“The video is very disturbing. The actions of the officers and the language used by one of them, understandably, elicits an emotional reaction from everyone who sees it. As a result, we felt it was important to learn as much as possible about the circumstances surrounding the incident captured on the video before we aired it. Not doing so would have been reckless and done a disservice to the community and to the police department. We were working to uncover important facts that we believed would add context to the story and better inform our viewers about what they were going to see on the video. For example, we made immediate requests for an incident report and any arrest information. However, no arrest was made and the man detained by police did not come forward or file a complaint. We also filed public records requests for the entire investigative report. In hindsight, we took too long to do so and should have reported the story sooner. We take responsibility for that mistake and we apologize.

“Some have suggested our relationship with the Seattle Police Department and other law enforcement agencies around the state, and the fact that we air ‘Washington’s Most Wanted’ may have compromised our judgment in this case. We understand those concerns, but think they are misguided. This was simply a case of taking too long to do the job you expect of us, nothing more. We’re proud of our relationship with law enforcement and the capture of 124 fugitives through our Washington’s Most Wanted program. However, we have not and will not hesitate to report on issues surrounding police.

“We are committed to doing better.”

The main lesson here is about the damage that can result when journalists withhold information. At Poynter, we often refer to “Green Light ethics,” meaning that a central role of journalism is to report, not withhold, information. Of course, there will be times when we will tap the brakes and ask more questions. We might even come to a red light, which will stop us from reporting stories that are untrue or unfair. But in this case, withholding damaging video only raised questions about whether journalists were too cozy with police.

In a side issue, the stations are fighting over who actually owns the video. MyNorthWest.com reported that after KIRO first aired the video Thursday night, there was an immediate legal dispute over ownership of the video footage.

“KCPQ-TV (Q13) says it is their copyrighted material. Q13 distributed the video to all media outlets Friday morning and asked that it be credited to them, instead of KIRO-TV. News organizations that used the video did change the attribution. Q13 attorneys formally asked KIRO 7 to remove the video from their website and newscasts by 11 p.m. Friday. Channel 7 did not comply.”

” ‘There is no doubt in my mind that the video is ours,’ says KIRO TV News Director Todd Mokhtari. ‘We bought it from a stringer who we’ve used in the past.’

“Mokhtari says KIRO-TV paid the freelance photographer, Jud Morris, $100 for the raw footage. That’s a standard rate.”

The Slog blog added more context:

“Q13 insists the footage is theirs and they are considering taking legal action. Morris was working for Q13 that night, using a Q13 van, filming with a Q13 camera, and a time slip shows that he was on the clock when the incident was filmed, says Q13 news director Steve Kraycik. ‘It’s illegal. You can’t take the property of another television station — a video in this case — and sell it to another media outlet and then air it,’ he says. ‘They don’t have the rights to that video.’

“But that’s Q13′s side of the story. Morris says the video is his and KIRO insists they got the video fair and square. According to Morris — who works as a freelancer photographer, or ‘stringer,’ and then sells the footage to several local television stations — he finished working early on April 17 and left the Q13 station in his own vehicle, with his own camera. He says he filled out his time sheet at the beginning of the week, but he left before the hours were up because he was trying to avoid overtime. He saw a bunch of cop cars take off and he filmed the incident. But when he tried to sell the footage to Q13 the next day, he says, they refused to air it.”

This part of the dispute reminds me how complicated a newsroom’s relationship can be with freelancers. How clear is your agreement with the freelancers you work with about when or whether they can post video on YouTube and do business with competitors? Who owns the video they shoot if you don’t air it? For that matter, what guidelines does your newsroom have about whether full-time employees may post news-related videos and/or photos on social network sites?

Here are some guidelines that I help to draft that could be a starting place in that discussion.

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