When CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper was covering Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he was on the ground in New Orleans, immersed in a tragedy that continued to unfold right in front of him. “There are times when it’s impossible; you’re a human being as well, and to see some of the things that many of us saw, you can’t help but react to it,” Cooper recalled in an interview with HuffPost back in 2015.
It is not uncommon for journalists to be the first responders on the scene of an accident, natural disaster or other event in which the victims they cover are at risk of harm. In 2009 the Dart Centre published a piece by Joe Hight, the chair of journalism ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma, who wrote about what journalists should consider when they encounter such situations. Hight cautioned that “it is not your role to act as a professional responder unless someone’s life is in danger.”
Journalists are not agents of the police and the public should not perceive them as such. Purdon and Palleja identified themselves to Mohamed as media, assuring him that they were not the police. They acknowledge that neither of them had previously gone out of their way to intervene in a story, nor was that their intention the night they encountered Mohamed.
“It would be highly detrimental for the media to be seen as an arm of the law,” writes Nick Russell in his book, Morals and the Media. “Journalists do not exist to make the work of the police easier.” In fact, journalists are under no obligation to serve any group other than the public and their interests, and serving them means they must remain independent from other systems and institutions. The Canadian Association of Journalists’ guidelines state that even appearing to have an affiliation with authorities has the potential to threaten journalists’ safety.
Dean Jobb, author of Media Law for Canadian Journalists, asserts that journalists have a duty as citizens to notify the authorities only if they learn that a crime will be committed or if there is a life at risk. Enkin echoes the sentiment, and weighs in on when journalists have an obligation to call the police.
Enkin acknowledges there is a clear distinction between situations in which calling the authorities will cause problems for an individual (e.g. getting arrested, for example) versus calling to prevent harm to that person. If a journalist’s job is to minimize harm, then calling the police when there is an impending risk to the individual or to the broader public should fall in line with their commitment and duty to journalistic standards. But Enkin points out the situation is never clear cut and, if in doubt, journalists should confer with their editorial leaders. Purdon and Palleja didn’t have the opportunity to consult with their editors. Within minutes they had to decide what would be their next move.