EDITORIAL: Duty to protect, be community members conflict

Editorial Board

On April 10, an annual multi-block party known as “Springfest,” held near James Madison University, got out of hand. The event, which usually draws about 2,000 people, brought in more than 8,000 people this year.  Neighborhoods were full of people celebrating the spring, but the atmosphere changed late in the afternoon when police announced over loudspeakers that everyone needed to leave.

Fights broke out. In response, tear gas grenades were thrown. Pepper spray was released. Rubber bullets and beanbags were deployed. Officers and partygoers sustained injuries, and more than 30 arrests were made by the end of the night.

And, like the Iowa State Daily was present to document the damage done during the Veishea riots, James Madison University’s student newspaper, The Breeze, captured footage of the party-turned-riot.

Soon after, authorities called The Breeze requesting videos and photos taken during the events. Breeze Editor-in-Chief Katie Thisdell offered to make copies of any riot footage The Breeze had already published.

Wanting more, Rockingham County Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst and more than half a dozen police officers came to the newsroom brandishing a search warrant. The warrant gave the prosecutor and police the authority to retrieve any data that included coverage of the riots.

To accomplish this, Garst threatened to seize equipment vital to the publication of the newspaper, including computers, cameras and even cell phones — unless The Breeze turned over hundreds of unpublished photos taken at the riots.

In the interest of putting out the next day’s paper, Thisdell complied with the demand. Police retrieved more than 900 photos — about 300 of which were unrelated to the riots — and copied them onto DVDs.

None of this data will be used for some time, if at all, however. Several laws exist granting newspapers the right to keep materials from the government unless the officials present a compelling case in their interest — which is supposed to be done through a subpoena. Because of these laws, The Breeze’s faculty advisor is holding the materials until the matter is settled.

As journalists, we struggle between protecting the identities of community members, and being members of a community. On one hand, we want members of the community to be able to trust the reporters and editors who work for the organization. On the other hand, we’re members of the community just like anyone else, and it’s hard not to feel a sense of civic duty in helping our neighbors bring criminals to justice.

There’s a fine line, and we often struggle to find it. As journalists, we are not police, and we can’t do their job. We can only be expected to observe and report — and if some act of justice can come from our reporting, we’re happy for it. But the separation between law enforcement and journalists is there for a reason.

We need to be able to operate independently. If we don’t, we increase the risk that we won’t be able to provide adequate coverage.Think about it: What would happen if the Daily fostered a friendly relationship with the police? Or the city council? We would certainly be in a position to help these groups out, and that might seem like the right thing to do.

But if corruption existed within those organizations, how could we adequately report it? As standoffish as it sounds, it’s completely right of The Breeze — and any other journalists — to say to any group seeking to get cozy, “Sorry, that’s not my job.”