Finding Room for Decency

September 12th, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Back on Aug. 20, the Albuquerque Journal broke on its front page a titillating news item. Carefully reading “Camera Catches Couple in Tryst”, I weighed the unfolding facts as presented, wondering how far the media ethically could and would go with this story.

The lead was:

SANTA FE —An apparent tryst that was caught on a Santa Fe County government security camera may have a State Police officer in hot water.

The camera captured images of what appears, at least to the Santa Fe County sheriff, to be a uniformed male State Police officer having sex with a woman on the hood of a car on county property.

“I’m glad it was not one of my deputies,” Sheriff Robert Garcia said this week.

The story did not have to sensationalize to become a sensational one. The facts were speaking for themselves.

The story went on to say that the sheriff’s office provided a disk with still-photo images of the tryst to State Police. State Police, through a spokesman, said an officer was on administrative leave while the incident was being investigated. The story also gave background on the incident site — a 470-acre ranch south of Santa Fe that now is county open space. Why a surveillance camera was posted there wasn’t answered until a follow-up story. (It’s intended to catch burglars or vandals.)

But the original story did include that Sheriff Garcia, who had seen the photos, said his impression was that an officer was having sex on what did not appear to be a marked police car. Further, the story reported:

Sheriff Garcia said what he saw in surveillance photographs did not appear to be illegal or criminal but was inappropriate.

So, no crime committed. And so far, no report of foul play by the woman in the photos. From this, the reader might think: how unfortunate for this couple, caught up (obviously) in the passion of the moment, thinking they were “alone” on public property, now publicly caught. Had the officer known about the park’s security camera? Had he, in the moment of passion, forgotten it was there? Yes, it’s inappropriate, and embarrassing for the force because he was an officer in uniform.

Then came the last paragraph, which, to this reader, was the most worrisome part of the piece:

The Journal filed a formal public records request with Santa Fe County government on Thursday seeking a copy of the surveillance camera images. The county said the request would be met within 15 days, as legally required.

To be clear, reporters have access to a lot of things that normally are seen only by law enforcement, attorneys, court personnel, medical personnel and/or the individuals involved in whatever newsworthy event or tragedy is being reported. An ethical question then arises: What do the reporters, editors and photographers do with what they see or obtain?

In this case, reporter Vic Vela obtained the photos (from the county, not State Police) to see for himself whether Sheriff Garcia’s impression was accurate. Vela confirmed that Garcia’s account was accurate in reportage Aug. 30:

The Sheriff’s Office released the two photographs under a public records request submitted by the Journal.

The photos show a man in a police uniform standing and leaning over a woman, who is lying on the hood of a compact car with her bare legs around the man’s body. The camera’s point of view is above and behind the officer. His utility belt, with handcuffs attached, hangs behind him.

Hanging out near the couple is what appears to be a Chihuahua or other small dog. In one photo, the little dog seems to be looking up at the couple.

The car is not a marked police unit.

We all know what happened after.

To its credit, the Journal did not run the photos in print or online.

Just because the media has access to photos, doesn’t mean they must or should run them. In fact, in sensitive cases such as this there must be a reason to publish, a reason that overrides whatever potential harm may come to the people involved. That’s a high bar to cross.

During my journalistic career, newspaper reporters and editors often routinely refrained from publishing certain information, because to do so could harm the public being covered. Some examples: We rarely reported exactly how certain suicides were accomplished because the method might be imitated. We didn’t run exact addresses of crime victims, in order to protect them from voyeurs and perhaps even other criminals, which is why you read about something happening in the 1000 block of such-and-such street. (Although TV news often focuses the camera on the victim’s exact house number. Guess they missed the memo on that.)

Similarly, you will read about weddings and honeymoons after the honeymoon, so burglars won’t be alerted to the fact that the newlyweds won’t be home. And addresses are not included in funeral notices, again because they would abet would-be burglars.

In terms of photos, U.S. print media (not counting tabloid rags) usually limit crime scene photos to views from behind the police tape, honoring a victim’s privacy. How often have we seen on television, on the other hand, car accident victims being rolled away on stretchers, obviously not ready for prime time?

One wonders, sometimes, if some television outlets even have a bar.

In the case of the sex tryst on camera, at least two Albuquerque TV stations chose to run the photos, apparently unbound by journalistic ethical principal or any obligation to limit themselves to confirming alleged facts of the story. In running them, they did nothing to improve TV’s image as the ambulance-chasing, privacy-invading medium it so often proves to be.

KOAT-TV7 and KRQE-TV13 broadcast or posted the photos online, and to what purpose? If it was to reap notoriety and get more Web site hits, they succeeded. This is not delivering the news, but prurient self-aggrandizement.

Yes, the officer was in uniform, which was revealed without sharing the photo nationwide. And what about the woman? Was she a public servant? Do they care?

Which raises the question: What would they have done if no officer had been involved? What if the couple had been young and foolish, perhaps related to a prominent official? Would that justify broadcasting an indiscretion, posting it online?

Oddly, the Journal failed to name in its A1 story of Sept. 3 the two sensationalizing television stations, perhaps because KOAT-TV7 is a Journal media “partner” and to name KRQE-TV13 without it would appear awkward.

Before the incident had been posted online for the entire world to see, one commenter on the original Journal story made a good point, writing:

So what? I mean, no laws were broken. It wasn’t a cop car. A grown-up would chuckle and delete the photos out of decency. Instead we’ve got an IA investigation, a cop on admin leave and a front-page story? Sheesh – how about following-up on the actual CRIMES being committed out there . . . some by public officials, no less?

“A grown-up would chuckle and delete the photos out of decency.”

Since the investigation – and worldwide publicity – the officer in question (who in 2010 was District 1 State Police Officer of the Year) is no longer with the force. State Police would not say whether he had been fired, citing personnel restraints.

Big brother is everywhere.

And the media has the power to abet those ubiquitous eyes by carrying images beyond the local to who-knows-where worldwide.

The officer and his paramour should have gotten a room, but some of those in the media should have made room for a little decency.

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