Told of the Seattle Police Department's plan to subpoena edited and unedited May Day protest video from local media organizations—and of the possibility that KIRO TV has already handed over some video without a subpoena—Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at The Poynter Institute, had a message for Seattle news outlets:
“Anything that you haven’t already published, you should not be handing over without a subpoena.”
The reason for this, McBride explained, is so that a request for evidence "doesn’t become this big fishing expedition by some law enforcement agency attempting to turn a newsroom into an arm of the law.”
Requiring a subpoena—and then fighting to limit that subpoena so that it covers no more than absolutely necessary—is not just essential to maintaining independence, McBride added. It's also about making the police do their own work.
“Really, they should not be asking journalists to do their jobs for them," she said.
Journalists are an independent organization meant to serve as a watchdog on the powerful. And when they simply capitulate, without so much as making them get a subpoena, you really do become a partner with law enforcement. And if I’m a member of the public, and I know that’s happening, I’m going to be very wary of that newsroom’s independence.
Judges by and large understand the issues at play in situations like this, McBride said, and so it's well worth a media organization's time and expense to have courts weigh in on an effort like the one the SPD is now describing.
"For the most part, judges recognize the need of newsrooms to remain independent and to uphold the appearance of independence as well," she continued. "Because they recognize that when information gathered for the purpose of a story becomes part of a criminal case, it has a chilling effect on journalists’ ability to gather information in the future. And that’s bad for society."
Put simply, McBride said: "It’s foolish to hand over information without a subpoena to the police department."
Still no comment from KIRO on whether it handed protest video over to the SPD without a subpoena.