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Live streaming crime scenes

Being "On the Scene" vs. Ethics

By: Tara Lynch

It was a normal October day in Alabama when WVTM in Birmingham received word of breaking news. Photographers and reporters flocked to the scene where search crews were looking for 3-year-old Kamille, who was missing. The cameras were set up and pointed at the first responders, but WVTM questioned if they should continue live streaming on Facebook.


The station was on the air for about three straight hours that day, bringing live updates to their viewers. Online they decided to limit the live streaming in order to protect the integrity of the investigation.


Brittany Decker, anchor for WVTM, said the scene was crowded with investigators, but they had to consider if the suspect was watching.


“The problem was what if the person who had her in captivity was watching to see what move the SWAT team was going to make…It becomes a dilemma if we are hindering an investigation or if we are helping an investigation. Of course, we are on the side of law enforcement and the public… We wanted her safe return,” Decker said.


Posting on social media is very powerful because it serves as an extension of the television broadcast and it can provide context to what is being reported on air. Stations upload data, photographs, links and other articles that provide more information on their stories.


Al Tompkins in his book, Aim for the Heart, notes the importance of online communication.


“Interaction promotes a deeper understanding,” Tompkins said (265).


The station decided to turn the cameras off and not live stream every move the SWAT Teams were making. WVTM had to balance being there first, reporting the content before other stations and upholding their ethical standards.


“We tend to air on the side of caution to make sure we are doing everything the right way, which I appreciate”, Decker said. “Obviously we want to be there first, but it is more important for us to make sure we have it right before we air something on television. It is a balance.”


As a station, WVTM has ethical codes that Decker says are consulted. Employees participate in online training exercises and regular ethical conversations with the Web Director, according to Decker.


WVTM followed Aristotle’s Golden Mean, as they wanted a balance between over reporting every action of law enforcement and laziness. Ultimately, they selectively pointed their cameras at the scene to limit how much content was being published online in order to avoid tipping the investigators’ hands.


“I appreciate that our boss and leadership takes responsibility of the impact that we have on the public and doing things in an ethical manner as compared to just getting their first to compete with other stations,” Decker said.


Reporters face similar dilemmas on all crime scenes. Sometimes pointing the camera at the scene can cause unexpected backlash that needs to be considered.


The station also followed the Judeo-Christian Ethic instead of the Veil of Ignorance. WVTM decided that it would be more beneficial to air on the side of caution, instead of spouting information to anyone who would listen. They tried to be empathetic to the victim and her family instead of lifting the veil of ignorance to expose the problems in society.


The station and Decker looked to minimize harm during this investigation. In the Potter Box Model, the station identified their dilemma as live streaming the scene could harm the investigation because the suspect could know where law enforcement is looking. Then, they identified their values of telling the truth, minimizing harm and seeking justice, which led them to follow the Golden Mean and the Judeo-Christian Ethic. Ultimately, the station found that their loyalties were to the victim, her family and law enforcement.


During this same case, another local station in Birmingham falsely reported on social media that the child was found, which is exactly what WVTM was trying to avoid.


“You have to be careful of what information you put out. Putting false information out there is the worst thing you can do,” Decker said.


Ultimately, the station stood by their decision to limit their live social media coverage of the scene to protect the integrity of the investigation. Decker says she prefers to demonstrate caution online and believes the station made the right choice.


“For instance, if it was our fault the kidnapper knew where the SWAT teams were, it would’ve really affected everything. I think it is better to not put yourselves in that type of situations,” Decker concluded.


Unfortunately, the victim was found dead after this initial coverage. WVTM used ethical principles to guide their online and television coverage of this tragedy, which ultimately made the reporting more accurate and less harmful to law enforcement.

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