Obeying law paramount in pursuit of the news

Honolulu Advertiser
By Jim Kelly
Advertiser Executive Editor

When is it acceptable for a journalist to break the law to get a photograph or a story?

Our newspaper’s ethics policy is clear. It says simply, “We will obey the law.”

Sounds simple. But like most policies, the practical applications can get complicated.

Last week, photographer Jeff Widener took a shot of swimmers who staged a sprint in the pool at the Waikiki Natatorium to protest the city’s failure to open the facility.

A press release had invited the news media to watch the “Waikiki Natatorium Bacteria-Free Sprint 2002 Invitational” and Widener was assigned to cover the event. Despite an extensive renovation, the Natatorium remains closed because of disputes over the cleanliness of the saltwater pool.

Widener said he wasn’t sure exactly what he’d find when he arrived. He said one of the participants knew the combination to the lock on the gate so he assumed that the event was officially sanctioned.

So he followed the group into the pool area, got his shot and returned to the newsroom.

“If the guy had a bolt-cutter, I wouldn’t have gone in there,” Widener said.

Widener’s photo ran in our PM edition. Later, when we discussed how to play the photo in our morning edition, an editor told us something we didn’t know earlier: The swimmers were trespassing, and so was our photographer.

We killed the photo, as well as a story about the event. Not only were we uncomfortable about the illegality, but we also didn’t want to glorify people who broke the law so they could stage a publicity stunt. Widener certainly didn’t do anything wrong because he didn’t know he was trespassing. In hindsight, editors should have asked some more questions before assigning anyone to cover this faux news event.

We have had previous discussions about whether it’s acceptable to trespass in the pursuit of news. Editors debated whether it was reasonable for us to try to get to Sacred Falls, which was closed by the state after the horrendous landslide in 1999. The state turned down our requests for a photographer to get into the park, even though there is certainly strong public interest in seeing how the slide scarred one of O’ahu’s most beautiful places.

So what’s wrong with simply hiking in?

A similar question has been asked about the Ha’iku Stairs, the so-called “Stairway to Heaven” hiking trail on the Windward side. The base of the stairs is fenced off, with signs clearly stating that the trail is closed for repair.

But the fence doesn’t stop most hikers. The argument for a photographer hopping the fence is fairly compelling: Everybody does it, and by getting on the stairs, we’d capture the incredible vistas seen by hikers, not some dull shot through a chain-link fence. Besides, it’s only a misdemeanor — the moral equivalent of bringing a cooler of beer into a city park.

So what’s wrong with simply climbing the fence?

We will obey the law.

Sometimes that’s hard for journalists to accept when it means settling for a less dynamic photo, or a less complete story. And in these post-9/11 days of heightened paranoia and occasionally overbroad definitions of what constitutes trespassing or trouble-making, there are more and more instances when journalists are being shut out of previously public areas and events, all in the name of security.

But it endangers our role as a public watchdog if we claim the right to decide when law-breaking is acceptable. By hopping the fence, we wouldn’t have much credibility in reporting and commenting about those who apply a similarly elastic standard to their actions.