It’s not hard for most people to know what to do when they happen upon a crime: find a police officer and cooperate in any way they can, says Los Angeles Times columnist James Rainey. It’s not always that simple for a journalist working on a story. The latest fight over a claim of reportorial exceptionalism comes from San Francisco, where a college photojournalist documenting life in a sketchy neighborhood happened on a homicide scene.
The police wanted his photos, saying they would help solve the crime. The photographer invoked the California reporter’s “shield” law to protect his unpublished material and, especially, his independence. Police responded with a search warrant. They confiscated pictures, a camera, and photo discs. Now the 22-year-old San Francisco State student is laying low, fearing for his safety if he is labeled a snitch, and fighting to get his pictures back. The case has set off a lively debate. Some accuse the journalist of obstructing justice. Others embrace the higher principal he’s asserting. “Who will talk to journalists,” asked one reader on the San Francisco Chronicle’s website, “if it becomes common practice for reporters to hand their testimony over to police?”