Gyrocopter Story Raises An Old Question: When Should Journalists Intervene?

The Tampa Bay Times knew well in advance that a Florida postal worker planned to fly a gyrocopter over Washington, D.C., and on to the grounds of the Capitol.

From what the Times has reported, there seems to have been no evidence that the man, identified as 61-year-old Doug Hughes, intended to do himself or anyone else any harm. There’s also a case to be made that the Times had reason to believe authorities were keeping tabs on Hughes. The Times knew he had been interviewed some months back by a Secret Service agent. That means Hughes was — in theory — on authorities’ virtual radar. (He wasn’t, it turns out, on any actual radar this week).

It isn’t the Times‘ job, or the job of any news outlet, to be the police.

But, the many ways things could have gone badly on Wednesday aren’t difficult to imagine. We’ll set aside the Hollywood scenarios of fighter jets and missiles.

Still:

– Hughes might have fooled the Times and had nefarious intentions.
– He could have been shot.
– If shots were fired, bystanders could have been hit.
– People could have been injured during evacuations or as police responded to the scene.

At the very least, as happened, streets would be closed and traffic tied up for blocks around.

The Times‘ reporter on the story tells The Washington Post that the news outlet “spent hours and hours talking about the ethics of this,” and decided there was no need to tell authorities well before Hughes’ planned launch. The Times ended up calling the Secret Service while Hughes was in the air, less than a half hour before he landed.

Media ethicists, as the Post notes, disagree: “ ‘A news organization should be extremely knowledgeable of the potential harm’ a stunt like this could cause, said Edward Wasserman, dean of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. ‘I really question their judgment.’ ”

News outlets don’t want sources to think reporters will run to the police about just anything potentially illegal that they’re told about.

But how about this? Apply common sense and weigh the value of the story against the potential harm to the public. That will continue to be our standard.

(Memmos; April 16, 2015)

April 16, 2015

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