April 7, 2014

A Houston television station is telling its staff not to knock on the doors of crime suspects. The station issued a memo saying it is too big a risk to journalists’ safety, but others see the move as a way for stations to protect themselves legally. And the president of the Society of Professional Journalists says such a broad order may result in weaker journalism that could be unfair to people accused of crimes.

KTRK-TV Houston News Director David Strickland issued the order to his staff after  reporter Demond Fernandez knocked on the door of a man accused of child sex abuse. The man told the TV crew to turn off the camera (which they didn’t) then he produced a gun.

Strickland wrote to his staff:

I know this will come off as opportunistic in the wake of today but I’ll allow my vanity to take the hit.

Since the Demond “knock on the door gun incident” from earlier this year, Don Kobos and I have been discussing the merits of knocking on doors of crime suspects. In short, we just don’t see the need to do it as the risk to reward ratio does not justify it. It’s just a sound-bite.

From this point forward reporters are not to go to a suspect’s house and knock on the door seeking comment. Producers and Managers are prohibited from ordering reporters and photographers from this type of news gathering.

As for other stories not involving a suspect, if the reporter or photographer thinks there is an editorial need to cold call knock on someone’s door they must get a manager’s permission first.

I know there are always circumstances that will frustrate this rule. In those cases, please discuss this with a manager and we will figure it all out.

It’s just not worth getting someone hurt over a sound-bite.

I’m sorry for not sending this out quicker.

Strickland told me he could not comment on the memo but sources have confirmed its authenticity.

This is no small matter. Journalists in newsrooms big and small tell me constantly that the “door-knock” is the part of their job they dread and hate the most. In addition to the danger, they say they feel like vultures.

Attorney Darrell Phillips, a former journalist whose practice includes working with journalists on contract and employment issues, told me in an email exchange that KTRK’s new directive provides important protection for the journalist AND for the station.

“The memo sets a policy that has a clear practical effect,” he wrote. “Reporters at that station are not likely to feel any anxiety about whether they’re going to have to take a risk to impress their employers. More importantly, I think it clearly protects them from a producer who instructs them to ‘go’ when they are not comfortable going.”

But Phillips points out that the memo also could, in theory, limit the station’s liability if a journalist ignores the memo and put himself or herself in harm’s way. (It is important to note that Phillips is not suggesting KTRK is trying to do anything other than keep its staff safe.) Phillips says when a station issues a directive not to do something, and a journalist does it anyway and gets hurt, the station might successfully say it has no liability.

Phillips writes: “Here is what makes this policy interesting, Al. If I work at KTRK and I decide to go anyway, despite the clear mandate from my employer not to knock, then a court is likely to find that I am acting outside the “scope of my employment” and that the employer is not liable for anything that happens to me when I am acting outside the policy.” (Phillips added the underline for emphasis.)

He said, “If they (the journalists) do the work and get hurt, after the issuance of the policy, I think if I were the station’s lawyer I would argue that the station is not liable at all.”

So why wouldn’t more stations adopt this policy? Phillips says nobody wants to be seen as taking a  “non-competitive” position. Bosses might resist sending a signal that they might be willing to take a pass on aggressively going after a big story.

I asked David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, to take a look at the memo. Cuillier told me that broadcast journalists should reconsider how they approach people they want to interview in less than pleasant circumstances.

“What sets people off is seeing that TV camera,” Cuillier said. “In the KTRK video, the man said to get the camera away from him. In my journalism career I have knocked on a lot of doors and I have never had anybody go ballistic like that. The camera is really what is setting people off.”

Cuillier said if journalists adopt a “no-knock” policy, they will have to be sure they provide a way for the people that are the subject of their stories to speak if they wish to. “It seems to me the people have a right to comment when it involves them.”

Cuillier says if journalists see the door-knock as “a visual technique to enhance the drama of a story, that it is more about pumping the ratings rather than giving the person the right to respond…then sure, don’t do it anymore. Find other ways to make the story compelling. No need to risk reporters’ lives just to pump ratings. But that’s not what it should be about – it should be about letting the source have a say, a right of rebuttal or explanation.”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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