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Josh Wolf, a journalist whose conduct brings up good ethical questions

Posted by direwolff on August 7, 2006

In case you haven’t heard about it yet, Josh Wolf, a blogger who covered the recent G8 Summit in Scotland where some violence erupted has been jailed for not turning over to the authorities the video he shot of the event. He’s also raising a defense fund to cover his legal costs as he tries to use the shield law in protection of his right not to be compelled to turn over that video. Here’s a link to Josh’s blog post [Update 9/11/06: for some reason the post I linked to on Josh’s blog is no longer there, but you can get a good feel for what’s going on by going to the main blog page] to his where you can read more about his situation.

Jeff Jarvis wrote a very compelling piece on this story and the issues it raises. I really liked how he covered different perspectives on this matter to give us something truly useful to ponder rather than the typical freedom of speech arguments. Two of these perspectives caught my attention and forced me down a slightly different tact which is what I’d like to elaborate on here.

Here’s the excerpt from the perspective I’d like to discuss:

• But what is to stop any witness to a crime from blogging and claiming to be a journalist, cutting off prosecutors from evidence needed to try criminals? Yes, what would stop Tony Soprano from blogging to claim the shield: ‘I’m what you call a citizen journalist. You godda problem wid dat?’

Let’s start with the fact that having a video of the commission of a crime is not sufficient grounds to find someone guilty. If someone had a video of a person being killed, but the corpse was never retrieved, no crime scene was found, no one would coroborate the crime, and no other evidence of a crime could be found, then the video alone would not be conclusive evidence of a crime (it could have been staged). Second, if the journalist was found to have been intimately involved with the suspected killers (which could be proved in several ways), then they could indeed be regarded as parties to the crime and hence criminally liable as well. Tony would then have to prove that not only was he a journalist, but that he was not involved with the people who did commit the crime, and the fact that he had a camera at the ready when the crime took place and the angle of the shots he got, all could have been done secretly. However, Tony would still have some “esplaining” to do as a material witness to a crime. Hence, I’m not sure that Jeff’s position here is effective in suggesting that any criminal could invoke the shield law. Well, that is unless the criminal in question was previously recognized as a journalist by profession or past contributions, in addition to not being known as a member of a crime syndicate.

Next:

• And what are the responsibilities of journalists as citizens to report crime and aid the prosecution? I was in the habit of calling bloggers “citizen journalists” (I’ve since updated my blogictionary and now call this networked journalism because, as I said above, it’s dangerous to define journalism by who does it). Oftentimes, when I used the phrase “citizen journalist,” professional journalists would complain to me, “Well, we’re citizens, too!” Indeed, we are. So what is our responsibility to society in criminal matters? Some say Judith Miller witnessed a high crime in the White House and should have reported it to prosectuors. Others might say that if Wolf has evidence of a cop getting bashed and refuses to hand it over, he is doing nothing less than aiding and abetting the crime.

This is indeed a good point but is one that needs to be looked at in a broader ethical context. Lawyers have a similar situation. They have to abide by the Constitution. This can put them in an ethical dilemma if they knowingly defend a client who is committing perjury, or one they know is guilty for whatever reason. The dilemma comes in the fact that attorneys are supposed to give the best defense possible for their client. If they know their client is lying, they’re supposed to advise District Attorney. The lines of how far that should go can get murky, and so it seems the same case with journalism these days.

Citizens in general also run into this ethical dilemma all the time. A friend recommends that you buy a company’s stock because he knows of non-public information that could have a material positive affect on the company. How many people would call the SEC? You see someone walk by a fruit stand and grab a fruit and eat it. How many people would call the store owner and inform them of the thief’s action? Again, not many, if any. Both of these examples can be treated as victimless crimes, but it’s the slippery slope we begin on to get to the more serious infractions.

In Josh’s particular case it doesn’t seem like he needs to be protecting sources since the authorities simply want his video footage which he gladly sold to several television stations. By his very actions and profession, one could say that Josh is in the business of taking footage from which he makes his living. So why shouldn’t the authorities have a crack at the edited pieces? Perhaps Josh has an interview with one of the perpetrators before the commission of a crime. If that perpetrator told Josh of his crime and how he was going to mame a police officer, at what point was it Josh’s responsibility to inform the authorities of this? At what point would Josh’s livelihood be endangered by turning this person over to the police before the commission of the crime (or after), since he could no longer be trusted to keep his sources secret?

Well, perhaps in Josh’s trial these facts will come out to help us better understand where Josh’s ethical dilemma lies. However, I don’t think that this is a case that should call for the broad implication that simply taking some video of an event gives authorities the right to get access to the footage. But if a crime does occur and is recorded on that footage, than it’s the ethical responsibility of the person who took that footage to turn it over, much like it’s one’s ethical responsibility to speak to authorities after witnessing a crime. Where the line should be drawn however, is that should there be admissions of other crimes on that footage, but that have nothing to do with the case in question, those should be inadmissible unless those other crimes had come into light prior to their viewing in the video footage provided. This, in my opinion, would help alleviate the concern that the government would begin fishing expeditions into our private libraries of video footage.

Of course, these are just thoughts and opinions, but it will be interesting to see how this case develops over time.

(4/3/07 Update: After having spent 226 days in court, Josh was freed today. Congrats to him for what he was willing to go through to defend our civil liberties… see the CNET article about his release with video, and check out Josh’s first public statement post.)

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6 Responses to “Josh Wolf, a journalist whose conduct brings up good ethical questions”

  1. Aaron said

    People have the right to remain silent, and the right to keep personal possessions private. What we choose, or claim, to see and/or do not see cannot be judged by others. Furthermore, since the prosecutors do not know if the video conclusively shows a criminal activity, how can they prosecute? In relation, it would be like saying everyone is guilty for filming the 9/11 planes crashing. People are not radicals for choosing to see the world, and no one should limit, question, or take from us, our basic ability to filter everything with our own free will.

  2. p-air said

    I’ve heard people use this defense before, this so called right to remain silent even when having witnessed a crime. Granted, if it’s for fear of loosing one’s life (ie. gang threat), I can understand and appreciate that, but short of this it’s simply comes across to me as an excuse that some will use to absolve themselves from their duty (not law) as a citizen, which is effectively the only way the legal system can work. Having said that, my point is more of a personal ethical behavior issue rather than suggesting that our government intervene and force people to turn over evidence especially in cases where they don’t know whether the person has any such evidence to begin with.

  3. I have to believe that this is the individual’s decision on the contents of his personal belongings and whether or not they can be of some service in prosecuting or solving a crime. We, as a free culture, must not let the time come when our personal notes, videos, data, etc. is granted free access by to the courts to whatever ruling authorities may be in power at the time. Given the abuses that we now see into our private lives, we must not let ourselves become the pawns of those who motives corrupt our civil rights and freedoms.

  4. hephastion said

    I agree with P-air (hah just got it). I feel very little sympathy for this Josh wolf. You see a crime you report it, or do you get top pick an choose because of the criminals political orientation? He’s no better than Busta Rhymes not telling cops who shot his body guard. Cowards the whole lot of them.

  5. Josh Wolf said

    All of your comments seem to assume that I witnessed a crime being investigated, either the alleged assault on the SFPD officer (which is a state offense), or the subject of the Federal Grand Jury investigation: the alleged attempted arson of the San Francisco Police vehicle. Given that conclusion you feel that I should turn over the tape as evidence of either of the aformentioned crimes.

    But, as you may or may not be aware, I offered to screen the footage for the Federal judge in order to demonstrate that I did not witness or capture either of these crimes; I also have a signed declaration to that extent which was filed for the court before the contempt proceedings began.

    It is my belief that this is an attempt by the Federal Government to invalidate existing state shield laws and it is for this reason which I have chosen to resist the demands of the grand jury and spent 31 days in jail.

  6. p-air said

    Josh, thanks for chiming in here. Not sure why someone removed the post that I had linked to on your blog, but what you should have understood from my post has more to do with ethical duty than with the reach of the law. Your comments here that you offered to screen the footage should have put this issue to bed as it’s not clear why there’s an insistence on taking possession of your footage. Thanks for laying that out for us here and know that as a result of your comments here I’ve made a modest contribution to your defense fund as it does appear that you understand the ethics of your work and side appropriately.

    For those of you who haven’t donated yet or want to know more about where to do so, go to Josh’s blog to find the donation link.

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