“Hey guys,” tweeted Kyle Feldscher, a reporter at the DC Examiner, “turn on MSNBC and watch the death of journalism!”
Feldscher's tweet captured a prevailing sentiment across social media as television news networks MSNBC, CBS and CNN (and, slightly later, Fox News) sent camera crews into the Redlands, California, home of the alleged perpetrators of Wednesday’s mass shooting in neighboring San Bernardino — and broadcast what they saw, live.
Viewers who tuned in to Andrea Mitchell’s show on MSNBC just after noon on Friday were treated to the removal of the plywood that blocked the door of the home of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who died in a shootout with police Wednesday. Their landlord had, according to MSNBC, promised access to another news program (reportedly Inside Edition) for $1,000, but told others staking out the residence they were welcome to follow.
And follow they did.
What appeared to be dozens of reporters, photographers and camera operators pushed into every corner of the house. The MSNBC team, trying to beat the crowds on the first floor, ran upstairs, entering a room with a crib, toys and a computer display. Then, in real time, and broadcast live without any apparent delay or attempt to edit, the on-air reporter Kerry Sanders held up an assortment of personal items, including infant’s toys, children’s books, a personal check with viewable account information, and a driver’s license with a very readable picture, address and identification number.
Al Jazeera had a crew at the scene but declined to air any of the live footage.
In another room, the MSNBC camera pushed into a pile of personal photographs, including one of a woman in a long dress and several small headshots of what appeared to be the same woman.
“I’m gonna guess that these are the photographs of Malik,” Sanders said. “So this is the first time. This may be, OK, we have quite a number of photographs here, but we don’t know, we don’t know if it’s her.” The reporter then shuffled through a pile of other snapshots, many of young children, flipping the photos over to look for names and dates (and showing that information to the camera when it was there). On the other side of the country, in the broadcast studio, Mitchell went from eager curiosity to audible unease, haltingly asking Sanders to maybe not show so many images of kids.
And, as the media scrum inside the house played out in real time, so did the reaction.
“We have no idea who the people in these photos are, but let’s broadcast the pictures of them and link them to terrorists on national TV,” wrote Washington Post national reporter Wesley Lowery on twitter.
“Creepy. Voyeuristic,” tweeted BlueJersey. “Reporters swarming through rooms of (alleged) terrorists’ apartment ... Journalism anyone?”
The crime scene had been “cleared,” according to the FBI (“Once we board it up, anyone that goes in has nothing to do with us,” said Los Angeles FBI Assistant Director David Bowdich at a Friday press conference in San Bernardino) — although Redlands Police Chief Mark Garcia said there was some speculation over whether the property rights of the estate of the deceased may have been breached by the landlord.
Legal issues aside, the spectacle seemed to many to have been unprecedented. For Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, it was the timing and scale that defined Friday’s press event.
McBride told Al Jazeera that, as a former crime reporter, she had seen landlords give access to journalists many times, after law enforcement officials had said they were done investigating the property. “But normally,” she said, “it’s one or two people.”
The real surprise this time, McBride said, was the decision to go with a live broadcast of the exploration.
“As a journalist, when you are in a home, you are gathering information,” she said. “You gather small pieces, you don’t know what they are. In order to be responsible, you confirm what is true and whether it is relevant to the story.”
“And then you add context,” McBride said, so the audience knows what they are seeing and why.
“When you are streaming live, you don’t have the ability to source, verify or add context,” McBride warned. “It’s more voyeuristic.”
There was also concern expressed on social media about what reporters inside the house were doing to an ongoing investigation, or to any potential legal proceedings in the future. McBride said there could be implications for an investigation or court case, but that should be “the least of your concerns” as a journalist.
It is law enforcement’s job to secure a crime scene, McBride said, but a reporter’s main concern is, “What truths you are telling your audience, and are you doing it in a responsible, accurate way?”
It is that responsibility — and the accuracy — that almost instantly caused unease.
When Sanders began a sentence with “I’m gonna guess,” it should probably have given him and his producers pause. As of Friday afternoon, Eastern Time, there was no official confirmation of whether the images of the woman shown in the live broadcast were actually photographs of Malik. The driver’s license, which was held up to the camera long enough for all its information to be read, is now being reported to belong not to Malik, but possibly to her mother.
In a statement, MSNBC said, “We regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review.”
In the hours after the media scoured the Farook-Malik residence, the landlord reportedly said he had not invited everyone inside, but rather was overwhelmed by the crush of people. While the video of that moment does show a crowd streaming in, there doesn’t appear to be anyone on scene trying to stop the entry. No members of the media have been formally accused of any wrongdoing.
Still, even if the broadcasts passed the test of the letter of the law, there is the spirit of journalism to consider.
"I'm sorry, Andrea,” Sanders said on air to Mitchell as she asked him not to show pictures of children, "this is sort of unfolding live as we're doing this. I'm not sure what the next picture is going to be until I pull them open."
That statement might also have warned producers of the perils of the live broadcast. As the Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple observed, “MSNBC encountered editorial situations faster than it could process them."
But perhaps Andrew Beatty, White House correspondent for French news agency Agence France-Presse, best captured the zeitgeist: “Please disregard this as the work of a few extremist zealots,” he wrote in a tweet, “they are not representative of our group.”