Reporter’s arresting question is news
A TV team chases a story to the finish. Was there a confusion of roles? “Film at 6.”
By John Gillespie
John Gillespie is a general assignment reporter for WLUK-TV in Green Bay, WI.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 10 (January 1990), p. 3.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
Becoming involved in a police chase is a heck of a proposition for the average citizen. But what if you are a journalist with a camera rolling and the suspect turns out to be a drug dealer wanted for the attempted murder of an elderly woman? And you’ve got about one second to make your decision?
It was just before 1 p.m. on September 1, 1988. Some chatter about a stakeout on our police scanner prompted photographer Tim Flanigan and me to check it out.
I took the wheel and he got his camera ready in case it turned into anything. By the time we got there, the stakeout was a foot chase. The first thing we saw, and videotaped, was a shirtless, shoeless man running fast between houses; the police were well behind. We moved a couple of blocks ahead, hoping to get an arrest on tape.
What we got was the suspect running straight for our unmarked news car, with the pursuing officers losing ground.
And then came the question — to myself as much as Tim: “Do I stop him?”
This is where the Role of the Media seminar is supposed to freeze the tape and consider all the other questions before tuning in for the ending.
- Is the reporter there to observe, no matter what?
- Is the obligation only to the story and the audience and not the police?
- Does the obligation to the audience include being a good citizen and intervening?
- If he does intervene, does the reporter endanger himself, the police or the public, or does he make the situation worse?
- If he does nothing and the suspect gets away, may he use the tape of the escape?
- May he use the tape if he helps in the capture?
- Whatever the outcome, how will the community react?
- Any of these could spark lively debate without any right or wrong answers being reached. But I needed the right answer fast.
I decided to stop him. To be honest, I didn’t know why the police wanted him.
The first thing you hear on our tape is my voice asking Tim: “Do I stop him?”
Then I’m jumping from the car and running toward the suspect with my arms outstretched, a technique I picked up while working my way through college as a campus police officer.
Apparently the suspect thought I was a plainclothes police officer. He looked up, saw me, stopped, threw up his arms and said “I give up.” And a few seconds later the cops caught up and arrested him.
Now came the editorial decisions.
We had a terrific story, a scoop. The savage beating of the elderly woman during a burglary attempt had been the lead story for two days. But how could we separate that from my involvement?
News Director Al Volker, Executive Producer Juli Buehler, Assignment Editor Randy Lube and I watched the raw tape and tossed out ideas.
Everyone endorsed running the unedited tape with the sound full, including my question to Tim. Volker suggested I do the story from the news set to make it more personal and to give one of those “No, kids, don’t try this at home” disclaimers.
I wanted the copy to explain that it was one of those split-second decisions that could have gone either way and that I just did what I thought I had to do.
Buehler wondered if that wasn’t going too far. But I insisted that it was the only way to let people know that it wasn’t a publicity stunt. And I figured they would believe our story only if it was true and they heard it from me.
So we did it my way.
We were lucky. The successful capture made most of the decisions that came after rather easy.
The public reaction was very positive. I received awards from the local CrimeStoppers and the county crime prevention association and a letter of appreciation from the Green Bay police chief, which the mayor read before the City Council.
The suspect, David Pleau, is in prison, serving time after conviction on the attempted murder charge.
My own feeling is that my reaction was the right one for me. In my mind, there is little difference between jumping in front of a fleeing suspect and a story that points the finger at those guilty of environmental pollution, or graft, or murder.
In any case, the action serves the public interest. And that is what this business is supposed to be about: serving the public.
In this case, it was just a little more dramatic and a little more direct.