San Bernardino Shooting Aftermath: What You Need To Know About Covering Crime Scenes

Shot of television coverage of San Bernardino shooting

After the recent shootings in San Bernardino, in which 14 were killed and another 14 wounded, the news media naturally wanted to learn more about the shooters, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who were both killed following the attack. On Friday December 4, reporters and camera crews from CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and other major media organizations entered the rental home of Farook and Malik, with the permission of the couple’s landlord, who let them in.

All the cable networks aired a substantial portion of their inspection of the townhouse live, and soon came under fire for what some felt was interfering with the investigation. Some law enforcement experts criticized the journalists, pointing out that the house didn’t appear to have been dusted for fingerprints, and contained shredded documents that authorities might want to piece back together. Another problem was the airing of identification documents belonging to some of Farook’s relatives, including social security numbers and addresses—an obvious security issue.

What Do I Need To Know When Investigating A Crime Scene?

As a journalism student, you may have learned some general aspects of media law. In most cases, you are free to take video in any public place, or on private property if you have permission of the owner or tenant. According to this New York Daily News article, Farook and Malik’s landlord opened the door for reporters, so in that aspect they did nothing wrong.

But What About Crime Scenes?

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. You may have permission to report from a public sidewalk, but if someone was just shot there you’ll have to stay on your side of the yellow crime scene tape. Police can’t ask you to leave a public place (except in cases of public safety issues), but they can stop you from trampling on a crime scene that hasn’t been released yet.

In the case of Farook and Malik’s home, the FBI said it was no longer a crime scene as of Thursday night, and released it back to the landlord. While some might question why authorities didn’t confiscate the shredded documents in the house, the journalists had every right to be there with the landlord’s permission.

What About Airing Personal Identification Information?

The real problem occurred when some networks aired footage identifying relatives of Farook, including addresses and social security numbers. It’s obviously wrong to air anyone’s social security number, due to the potential for identity theft. Names and addresses are usually available with a brief internet search, but in some situations, airing them without permission is still a bad editorial decision.

In the San Bernardino situation, for example, you have relatives of an individual who killed 14 people and wounded 14 more. What if a loved one of a victim decided to get even by harassing or even harming one of Farook’s relatives? Could the network that aired that person’s personal information be held responsible?

According to the Digital Media Law Project, a person can only sue for invasion of privacy if the information shared by the media is otherwise private—such as medical or financial information (this includes social security numbers, in most cases).

In general, publishing a person’s address is not considered grounds for an “invasion of privacy” lawsuit against the media. After all, a lawyer for the network could argue that anyone with an internet connection and a credit card can get any address he or she wants. A person who was determined to track down one of Farook’s relatives, for any reason, could probably do it even if a cable network hadn’t flashed their address on a national news program. On the other hand, the network’s airing of that personal information certainly made things easy for any viewers who were inclined to harass Farook’s relatives. Some might argue the broadcast could have encouraged already-angry viewers to take their feelings out on the individuals whose information was aired.

Regardless of the legal implications, airing personal identification of Farook’s relatives was a poor editorial decision. Some networks made an effort to avoid showing sensitive information—CNN told the New York Times it avoided “close-up footage of sensitive or identifiable information, like photos or ID cards,” and Fox News had a similar statement.

MSNBC, however, did show footage of the relatives’ identifying info, plus pictures of Farook and Malik’s six-month-old daughter. (The network’s anchor, Andrea Mitchell, told the camera crew to pan away from the child’s pictures, and the network later apologized.)

Think Carefully When Doing Live Shots

This highlights a problem of any live broadcast: You can’t edit what you just aired. If you’re gathering video for later and aren’t sure if you should air something, you can always ask a colleague during the editing process. But if you’re doing a live shot of a crime scene, you won’t get that chance.

Unfortunately, you can’t predict what you might find when working your way through a recently-released crime scene. If possible, it’s always a good idea to briefly go through the building before going live. It will help you to decide what you can safely air, and what you should entirely avoid.

If it’s not possible to preview the scene before going live, plan on starting with a wide shot of the room and panning slowly around. If you pan over any identifying information, the details probably won’t be visible to viewers. You can always ask the photographer to zoom in if you see something interesting that doesn’t seem sensitive.

If you do realize that you are showing something personal and unnecessary to the story, do your best to direct the photog away from it as quickly as possible. There is nothing wrong with simply saying, “Let’s not show that,” like MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell did during the live shot at Farook and Malik’s home, when she told the crew, “Let’s not show the child.” This lets viewers know you are doing your best to avoid unnecessarily airing sensitive information in an unpredictable situation.

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