The order by a King County, Washington, judge that The Seattle Times and other media must turn over unpublished content to the police is a blow to independent journalism.
The order imperils journalists documenting this summer’s historic protests and sends the wrong message about the media as a check on government power.
Journalists’ unique role and responsibility is protected in Washington’s shield law, passed by legislators in 2007. The law prohibits officials from forcing journalists to turn over unpublished information outside of specific and narrow circumstances. King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee’s recent order that The Seattle Times and four other news outlets must hand unpublished protest video and photos to police investigators is a troubling interpretation of that law.
Police want the journalists’ images to help identify suspects who set fire to police cars and stole police firearms during a May 30 protest in downtown Seattle. Certainly, those involved in the crimes should be held accountable. But even the mistaken conflation of journalists with police investigators can directly impact news gatherers’ ability to do their work.
In volatile situations like recent protests, this misconception can — and has — led to physical violence.
As the National Press Photographers Association and Press Freedom Defense Fund wrote in a joint statement about Lee’s decision, “It is dangerous enough for visual journalists to be covering the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests over the death of George Floyd. The last thing visual journalists want is to be seen as an arm of law enforcement, aiding attempts to gather evidence.”
As Seattle Times assistant managing editor Danny Gawlowski wrote in a declaration submitted to the court, even before the court ruling, Times photo journalists have had to repeatedly explain their independence to protesters. During one early protest, a Times staff photographer was hit in the head by a rock and punched in the face.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has verified more than 585 incidents of journalists being assaulted, arrested or otherwise prevented from reporting during this summer’s protests in dozens of cities.
Independence from political and commercial influence is the backbone of responsible journalism. Journalists must report in the public interest, not in the service of government.
Journalists are facing enormous challenges as they report this historic moment. The court’s decision threatens to make a bad situation worse.