A recent ruling from a judge in Seattle undermines the important role of independent journalists as chroniclers of the world around us.
Judge Nelson Lee of King County Superior Court ignored common sense and the importance of a free press in ordering news outlets to comply with a subpoena from the Seattle Police Department. The subpoena seeks unpublished video and photos from The Seattle Times and four TV stations that were reporting on a May 30 racial justice protest that turned violent.
The order subjugates a free press guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, turning the media into a de facto arm of the government. Indeed, those who turned to violence and vandalism should be held accountable, but gathering evidence and identifying suspects is the role of law enforcement, not visual journalists.
As Michele Matassa Flores, executive editor of The Seattle Times, said: “The media exist in large part to hold governments, including law enforcement agencies, accountable to the public. We don’t work in concert with government, and it’s important to our credibility and effectiveness to retain our independence from those we cover.”
Law enforcement and prosecutors have access to published photos and broadcast videos — the same as the public. But allowing the government to delve into unpublished material is a chilling extension of an authoritarian state. Turning journalists into an arm of the state diminishes their ability to effectively do their jobs and impartially report on events.
As the National Press Photographers Association and Press Freedom Defense Fund said in a joint statement: “This ruling unnecessarily pits the free press against the public they report for, and forces them — against their will — to aid the government they are obligated to hold accountable through their reporting.”
The statement also read: “It is dangerous enough for visual journalists to be covering the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests over the death of George Floyd. The last thing visual journalists want is to be seen as an arm of law enforcement . . . In an era where there are cameras on nearly every corner and in every pocket in America, it strains belief that police cannot get the evidence that they need elsewhere.”
Journalists are facing enormous challenges as they report on protests of racial injustice. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has verified at least 585 incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested or prevented from reporting during this summer’s protests around the nation. Journalists also have reported incidents of being threatened by members of the public who already view them as an arm of the government.
A free and independent press is essential to American democracy. That independence is as much a function of perception as reality. The public must be assured that there is a separation of press and state in order for journalists to effectively do their jobs.
Washington’s shield law, passed by legislators in 2007, prohibits officials from forcing journalists to turn over unpublished information outside of specific circumstances. Lee seized on those exceptions in issuing his order, a troubling decision that obfuscates the meaning of the law.
As Frank LoMonte of the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information said: “If you’re out there at a chaotic scene and people think of you as an information gatherer for police who is going to turn over footage . . . you may be in grave bodily danger.”
That, in turn, endangers our democracy.