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Footage of a suspected vegetable-stand thief was aired on a Maryland TV station, prompting hundreds of comments/shares.
Footage of a suspected vegetable-stand thief was aired on a Maryland TV station, prompting hundreds of comments/shares.

Simon Houpt

When journalists start to look like snitches Add to ...

Something weird happens when people become journalists.

Many of us get into the trade because we feel passionate about the world. We want to play an active, vocal role in shaping our society without joining its official apparatus. Instead of becoming, say, a politician or a police officer, we seek to be something more like a professional citizen.

So why do so many of us forget about being citizens?

Last week WBOC, the CBS affiliate in Salisbury, Md., was given a videotape of someone apparently taking money out of a cash jar that had been left unsupervised at a road-side vegetable stand. They put the video on their Facebook page, where they have an active community of more than 48,000 fans; within hours, they started to receive phone calls ID’ing the suspect. By the time their report aired during the supper hour newscast, they had handed over the suspect’s name to the police.

Traditionally, reporters are not supposed to play a role in law enforcement, lest they become seen as an agent of the government. That objectivity is part of what enables us to gain access equally to the corridors of power and the homes of the disenfranchised, to step into the centre of a march that explodes into a riot without becoming a target of either the protesters or the police. TV stations, newspapers, and documentary filmmakers repeatedly go before the courts to prevent their footage from being seized by the authorities.

But traditions are eroding quickly. In the past decade, a new species known as the citizen journalist has become an important part of the informational ecosystem. Working usually as volunteers, they may provide spot news of a breaking story on Twitter or spend months digging into a corrupt administration. They’ll eagerly crowd-source to solve a crime – be it a sexual assault or a post-Stanley Cup riot – and happily turn over their findings to police. And they regard the Chinese walls between news organizations and the authorities as outmoded and maybe even morally suspect.

At the same time, online tribes are forming to cover issues they care about.

News organizations are feeling the pressure to evolve to make sure they’re not cut out of the picture. But by positioning themselves as friendly virtual town squares, they may be risking their traditional objectivity. It’s impossible to say that’s why journalists are being targeted in war zones, but they are dying with appalling regularity these days, and not always at the hands of repressive regimes.

Even the criminals seem confused. After the WBOC story aired, the alleged vegetable-stand thief reached out to the station’s reporter, Ko Im, to say he wanted to apologize. On Tuesday, she and her colleagues were trying to figure out whether they should tell the police or prod the suspect to do that himself.

This came hard on the heels of another case of small-time thievery that took place only a couple of hundred kilometres away, in Pennsylvania’s Upper Merion Township. After the ABC station WPVI aired surveillance footage of a smash-and-grab at a gas station last week, a suspect named Anthony Thomas showed up at the station to turn himself in. He explained that his mother had seen the report, and that if he didn’t fess up, she’d call the cops on him.

So the station called the cops instead – right after they conducted an exclusive interview with him.

And so there was Thomas, standing in WPVI’s parking lot, near tears, explaining that he’d never done anything like that in his life, that the drugs made him do it. He provided photographs of himself to the station, posing with large sand sculptures he’d made at the shore: a recumbent mermaid, a boxy turtle.“I felt like to come here to Channel 6, it would be easier,” he explained, sniffling apologetically. “Maybe they’d give people a chance to look at me, and see something else inside, other than the bad side.” It worked: He came off as pitiful and sympathetic, even as he provided all the evidence necessary for a conviction.

It was compelling television, with as happy an ending as possible, given the circumstances. But it’s only the flip side of the suspect who busts into a news station and takes hostages, or guns down a reporter he believes has done him wrong or ratted him out to the authorities.

On Tuesday, Ko Im at WBOC agreed that she and her colleagues were wrestling with the role they were playing in the unfolding drama. “The police have a role, the journalists have a role, the citizen has a role,” she said. “I definitely keep that in the back of my mind – to be a good citizen. In the end, you want to live by your principles.”

“And sometimes they’ve very similar to what a normal person would do.”

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Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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