From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 17.
By Heather Palmer
When the Nacogdoches (Texas) Daily Sentinel newsroom began buzzing on Aug. 22 with reports of a shooting in nearby Chinero, photographer Andrew Brosig grabbed his camera and left the building expecting typical coverage of a shooting.
A suspect, Rodney Collins of Nacogdoches County, had shot his mother-in-law and his son. After crashing his car on a highway, Collins took off on foot to a neighborhood where he held law enforcement officers in a standoff.
Brosig expected to capture the story on camera, but was surprised when a police detective asked him for his camera after Collins had demanded to meet with a reporter.
Brosig remembers thinking that Collins was clearly a disturbed person. The man had already killed one person and wounded others and was now holding police at bay with a .410-gauge shotgun.
“I did what I could to help,” said Brosig, who handed his camera and notepad to Lt. Greg Johnson.
Johnson later apprehended Collins after approaching him by pretending to be a reporter sent to interview him.
To Brosig, law enforcement officials and other observers, a reporter offering his pad and pen to help a police officer nab a criminal might seem a logical choice. But press advocates warn there is a hidden danger in these types of incidents.
“Such actions compromise the perceived independence of all journalists and increase the risk they face daily in covering dangerous news stories,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“We urge law enforcement agencies to consider carefully that these actions might very well serve to target journalists,” Cooper said. “We hope alternative tactics will be used that don’t place journalists at risk.”
Bob Steele, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., warns that the practice of impersonating journalists raises suspicions, particularly among suspects who agree to interviews.
“That type of action can endanger journalists in other situations where there is tension such as rallies or riot,” Steele said. “Someone may believe that a journalist is not really a journalist, thinking instead that is a police officer impersonating a journalist and harm the journalist.
“The other danger is that journalists must operate independently and should not be seen as an arm of law enforcement because the credibility of journalists could be eroded,” Steele said.
He hesitated to support an absolute prohibition on law enforcement portraying themselves as journalists. But he said there must be significant justification for such an instance. The gravity of these situations, he said, requires consultation with top management on both the law enforcement side and the journalist side.
Brosig doesn’t agree that such actions put journalists in danger.
“As journalists, we are in danger every day,” he said. “I don’t think what happened is going to make our job more dangerous. I feel like I did the right thing in this situation, but I don’t know if I would do it again.”
“Honestly, I don’t know of anyone who would let a journalist walk into a situation like this,” Detective Johnson said, “and I know for a fact that we would not put a journalist in a dangerous situation like that.”
This incident is hardly the first of its kind. On June 13, 2000, a similar situation took place in Newark, N.J. Newark police officers used an NJN camera to gain access to the home of a hostage taker. A man had taken his 9-year-old son hostage after killing his wife and mother-in-law. John Williams, the cameraman for NJN, a PBS-affiliated station, told The (Newark) Star-Ledger that he felt he had “no choice in the matter.”
During a civil trial in Idaho for a neo-Nazi group in August 2000, seven FBI agents posed as news photographers until other journalists complained to the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department. “I didn’t think it was going to be that big an issue,” Capt. Ben Wolfinger of the sheriff’s department told Reuters after the incident.
Under federal guidelines established in 1992, FBI agents can be authorized to pose as journalists under limited circumstances and with prior approval from supervisors. Former Attorney General Janet Reno announced in early 1995 that she was considering a request to create guidelines barring FBI and other federal agents from posing as journalists. But no action has been taken since then, according to the Justice Department.
But Johnson said he felt the situation worked out for the best.
“I think the reporter did a hell of a job,” Johnson said. “He put his community before anything else. I consider Andrew to be a hero. He really helped us out. This standoff could have ended with more violence but because of him it didn’t have too.”
“I live with these guys,” Brosig said. “I see them every day. If something happened to one of them, I would have to live with it. I felt like I had to do something.”