In media we trust

When the police want your photographs, should you comply? Jared Gnam looks at the ethical and legal issues surrounding a recent court order that saw six news organizations hand over their photographs and video to police to aid in the investigation of the 2011 Vancouver riot for the Langara Journalism Review.

By Jared Gnam

When the police want your photographs, should you comply? Jared Gnam looks at the ethical and legal issues surrounding a recent court order that saw six news organizations hand over their photographs and video to police to aid in the investigation of the 2011 Vancouver riot for the Langara Journalism Review.

By Jared Gnam

Even before the puck dropped for the decisive Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in Vancouver in June 2011, I had my camera and recorder ready to go just in case it got ugly in the downtown core that night. Sure enough, after the home team lost, I recall hearing over Twitter that some fans had flipped a pickup truck on Georgia Street and set it ablaze, marking the beginnings of a full-blown riot. I made my way into the heart of the madness and took shots of some incredible scenes of people losing their minds burning police cars, smashing windows and looting stores, causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

It was a memorable experience for me as a journalism student. I had never covered any serious conflicts and this was a great test of my nerves. Could I stay focused as an impartial observer while anarchy unfolded right in front of me?

Several months later I was presented with an ethical dilemma as I was set to begin my second year of journalism school. A Vancouver police detective called me and requested my entire lot of riot photos—some 400 images.

At first, I felt a moral obligation to hand them over and I agreed with the detective that I would put them on a disc and drop them off at the station with the hope that my work would help prosecute some of the criminals I documented that night. But then I had second thoughts. Was I obliged as a member of the press to aid the police’s investigation?

Resistance to the request for media photos

This question gained widespread attention after half a dozen media outlets received the same request. They said no and prepared themselves to fight what ended up as a four-month battle over a court order requested by Vancouver police to hand over the hundreds of hours of video footage and thousands of photos taken during the riots.

Media lawyers were firm in their resistance. “Journalists are not a part of the police force and they shouldn’t be thought of that way,” says Dan Burnett, who represented all six media outlets. “It can affect their neutrality, the perception of the public, and there are safety issues.”

Burnett notes, for example, that at certain points of the riot the crowds turned on two cameramen and a still photographer who work for one of the six media outlets. 

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that this is because some people in the crowd clued in and thought, ‘Holy, this might get used against me.’”

The original court order was shot down by the B.C. Supreme Court on Dec. 16 due to technical reasons as the outlets—The Globe and Mail, CTV, CBC, Global Television, the Vancouver Sun and The Province—were not properly named, and neither was a clear geographical area defined.

When the VPD filed a new application a week later, Judge David Harris ordered the media to hand over the material. He rejected the argument that the order would turn journalists into agents of the police, thus interfering with their neutrality and safety. Instead, he concluded the footage would provide investigators with valuable evidence that would not be available from other sources.

Police using journalists as a resource

Burnett says the media should only be used as a last resort for gathering evidence in a criminal investigation. He notes the VPD deployed only one officer to gather evidence with a video camera during the riot, and therefore they were clearly relying on footage from the public and the media.

“One of the VPD officers said to one or more of the journalists, ‘Make sure you get good shots of this; we’ll need this stuff’ and that’s just the wrong attitude.”

Burnett argues the 5,000 hours of video and more than one million photos gathered from citizens and store surveillance of the four-hour riot should be sufficient for police.

But Sgt. Howard Chow, spokesman for the Integrated Riot Investigation Team, says much of the evidence supplied by the public was poor quality, off cell phones, point-and-shoot cameras and surveillance cameras. These images, Chow says, are inferior compared to the high-quality material gathered by journalists.

“We’ve got reporters that we know were out there on the ground at the time of the riot with HD-quality cameras, that are professionally trained,” Chow says. “[They] are capturing crimes that are taking place … in a manner that’s not shaky and in a manner that’s going to give you a product that’s not grainy and potentially going to be evidence.”

Despite the VPD going forward with the court order, Chow says the police respect the media’s wishes not to be seen as voluntarily turning over the material. He says that’s why the courts are there to make the call.

“If there’s any suggestion that the media is an arm of the police or is collecting evidence for the police—well, absolutely not,” Chow says. “It’s the courts that have decided that they should turn it over.”

The media outlets’ response

After the B.C. Supreme Court ordered the six media outlets to hand over the footage, the Vancouver Sun and The Province decided to post their entire inventory of 5,481 photos taken by staff photographers on their websites to make the point that they serve the public first.

“I think that was a smart thing to do,” says Beverley Sinclair, media ethics instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. “They remained in control of those images. They handled them first; they made them public first.”

The newspapers stated they posted the photos so innocent people could see whether their images were there. They called on the VPD to return or destroy the images after the investigation in order to respect the civil liberties of thousands of people who did not engage in criminal activity that night.

Chow says the footage will only be used to catch those who were obviously involved in illegal activity.

“We’re not talking about let’s find out who had a bottle of booze in their hand or who was hamming it up … for the cameras,” Chow says. “We’re talking about people who are looting, who are breaking windows, who are assaulting people—those are the people we are after.”

Maintaining media autonomy

But Sinclair maintains that the media should be free from influence of police or the state, pointing out that this is one of the main tenets of journalism.

“It’s a very bad thing for democracy and for the public’s trust of the media to have any sense that the police have any involvement in what the media is able to publish.”

Despite my initial agreement to co-operate with police and hand over my photographs, my instincts made me hang on to them. I’m now glad I did. When I was in the midst of that frenzied crowd shooting those pictures, some of the rioters lunged out for my camera. They saw me as a threat. If it becomes routine for journalists to hand over their material to assist police in their investigations, then this mentality will only grow. Journalists will be condemned to wear bullseyes on their backs when covering such conflicts.

Jared Gnam is freelance journalist based in Vancouver and a recent graduate at Langara College's journalism diploma program. He has been published in The Province and The Vancouver Courier newspapers. His main passion lies in photojournalism and he has covered various events in Vancouver including the Stanley Cup riot and Occupy Vancouver protests.

This article was originally published in the 2012 issue of the Langara Journalism Review out of Langara College in Vancouver, B.C. and has been re-printed with permission.


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