Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Police demands for unpublished images of riots at Capitol and elsewhere could put journalists in a difficult position

A door at the U.S. Capitol after Wednesday's riot. Getty Images.
Law enforcement agencies investigating last week's riot at the U.S. Capitol will likely demand that news organizations and individual journalists who covered the event turn over their unpublished photos and videos. That may put journalists in a sticky spot, especially since there is no shield law at the federal level, Poynter Institute senior faculty member Al Tompkins writes. And in states without shield laws, local protests could pose issues for journalists.

National Press Photographers Association General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher said journalists may face backlash for fighting to hold onto unpublished media. The public may not understand why journalists would resist such a demand, but Osterreicher noted that compliance could endanger journalists as a whole. "Police and prosecutors do not get to see our notes or our unpublished work. We do not want to be seen as an arm of law enforcement," he told Tompkins. "It puts journalists in a dangerous position when police wanted to see photos of protestors. It puts journalists in an even more dangerous position than just covering a dangerous story. If protestors think the journalists are creating evidence for the police, protestors target the journalist." That could apply to protests at the state and local level as well.

Still, Osterreicher noted that journalists he's spoken to agree it's important to identify the rioters in order to hold them accountable and to explore allegations that the rioters were infiltrated by left-wing or anarchist organizations. Many news organizations are voluntarily publishing extra images and videos to help others identify rioters, from USA Today to local newsrooms and networks. "Local news organizations and networks have also begun identifying rioters who have local ties," Tompkins reports.

The NPAA board of directors published a memo on Friday asking prosecutors to go after rioters who attacked journalists on Wednesday: "To do our jobs, photojournalists must be on the front lines to record the news. The threats, violence and aggression toward visual journalists are unconscionable acts that erode our democracy and our country’s First Amendment rights."

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