TV and print journalists generally don’t worry about the public relations ramifications of their reporting.
Still, it couldn’t help the reputation of the Fourth Estate—to say nothing of law enforcement—when a journalistic scrum overran the apartment of suspects in the San Bernardino mass shooting Friday and began live-broadcasting and -tweeting the scene.
Twitter erupted in outrage, and the reporters rifling through the apartment drew criticism from fellow journalists. Much of the dismay was directed at the FBI and local law enforcement officers who hadn’t secured the scene—less than 48 hours after the fatal shooting that killed 14.
Vanity Fair headlined its story, “TV Reporters Bumble Their Way Through San Bernardino Shooter’s Apartment,” calling it “one of the most bizarre moments in cable-news history.”
The fracas began when multiple television networks—including MSNBC, CNN and CBS—broadcast live from inside the home of San Bernardino shooting suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, saying they had gotten the landlord’s permission to enter. That was unclear, however, as the landlord said in an interview that reporters had “rushed” in.
Newspaper reporters also tweeted photos that show a driver’s license and Social Security card that seemed to belong to Farook’s mother.
“I’m having chills down my spine, what I’m seeing here,” CNN’s law enforcement analyst, Harry Houck, told the network. “I mean, this apartment clearly is full of evidence.
“I don’t see any fingerprint dust on the walls where they went in there and checked for fingerprints for other people that might have been connected with these two,” he said. “You’ve got documents laying all over the place; you’ve got shredded documents…You have passports, you’ve got driver’s licenses—now you have thousands of fingerprints all over inside this crime scene.”
The Blaze stated that less than 48 hours since the massacre had taken place, many wondered why journalists were in the apartment of two terrorism suspects—potentially contaminating a crime scene.
Reporters tweeted images of what appeared to be evidence, such as a trash can filled with shredded documents.
“David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, told reporters on Friday that investigators had released the apartment back to the landlord after they served a search warrant,” The Blaze reported.
He said that after that it has “nothing to do with us.”
At least one local law enforcement official had “no clue” who had authorized reporters and camera crews to enter.
San Bernardino Sheriff’s office tells TheBlaze that he has “no clue” who would have authorized reporters to enter suspect’s home.
— Chris Enloe (@chrisenloe) December 4, 2015
With journalists cringing nationwide, the Society of Professional Journalists rushed out a statement Friday distancing the organization from the embarrassment.
“Journalists should feel free to investigate stories when and where possible,” said Andrew Seaman, SPJ Ethics Committee chair. “They need to minimize harm in their reporting, however. Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.”
The Twitter community’s outrage extended beyond journalists to law enforcement officials, as well.
Law enforcement should arrest the landlord, the reporters, and then themselves for wild incompetence. https://t.co/ySoLeeLbZa
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) December 4, 2015
Los Angeles Times reporter Kate Mather, who entered the apartment, tweeted images such as a picture of a four-page receipt for ammunition found on site. The document seemed to have been left behind by the FBI. She said the reporters were there at the landlord’s invitation.
— Kate Mather (@katemather) December 4, 2015
She seemed to face criticism, or at least puzzlement, from within her own organization.
SB Sheriff’s deputy: “[Feds] told us it’s still an active investigation…I don’t know why there’s people in there.” https://t.co/4BLzZ2MAp6
— Joe Serna, LAT (@JosephSerna) December 4, 2015
A New York Times reporter was one of many journalists who seemed baffled by what was going on.
CNN’s law enforcement analyst appears shocked by what CNN’s reporters (and other reporters) are doing.
— Nick Confessore (@nickconfessore) December 4, 2015
Fox News media analyst Howard Kurtz, a former Washington Post writer, tweeted that “the look at San Bernardino attackers’ apartment feels both fascinating and ghoulish. The baby’s teddy bear?”
MSNBC among crews rummaging thru toys, books in San Bernardino attackers’ apartment. Why isn’t this sealed by authorities?
— HowardKurtz (@HowardKurtz) December 4, 2015
Some even suggested that the reporters were guilty of breaking and entering, saying the landlord doesn’t have permission to enter an apartment of a deceased tenant under California law. One Twitter user accused an NBC News reporter of deleting tweeted photographs of the inside of the home.
— Stephen Miller (@redsteeze) December 4, 2015
The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple was another unhappy customer, writing a story headlined, “MSNBC’s terrible live tour of the San Bernardino attackers’ apartment.”
“Was it compelling?” he wrote. “No, it was life-sucking.”
The end result can’t be a reputation boost for news media outlets—nor for the law enforcement officials who seemed quick to brush off their responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the crime scene.