Cable viewers watched aghast Friday morning as live footage from inside the apartment of the two suspects killed in a police shootout after the San Bernardino massacre beamed from TV screens. With hardly a moment’s pause, personal effects ranging from stray photographs to Social Security cards were televised. While details vary about how reporters gained access, their subsequent indiscretion underscores the editorial perils of overeager live TV.
“Kind of overwhelming here with the number of crews that are here,” announced MSNBC reporter Kerry Sanders, with reporters from CNN and CBS also on scene. Seconds earlier, Sanders held random photographs found in a bedroom up to the camera, narrating, “We’ve got quite a number of pictures of children here.”
This is journalistic malpractice. pic.twitter.com/iYqglTbH8Y— Adam Goldstein (@A_H_Goldstein) December 4, 2015
With a landlord’s permission, “[a] man was seen using a crowbar to open the plywood-covered front door, allowing a rush of reporters, photographers and videographers to spill into the home,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Four people lived there, including the shooters’ 6-month-old daughter.
CNN’s law enforcement analyst appears shocked by what CNN’s reporters (and other reporters) are doing.— Nick Confessore (@nickconfessore) December 4, 2015
Law enforcement officials offered conflicting statements to media about whether the scene was actively part of an investigation, and Twitter users speculated about whether evidence was being disrupted. In a statement, MSNBC defended its right to entry.
“MSNBC and other news organizations were invited into the home by the landlord after law enforcement officials had finished examining the site and returned control to the landlord. Although MSNBC was not the first crew to enter the home, we did have the first live shots from inside. We regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review.”
“Our search is over. We released the scene yesterday.” — Spokesperson for FBI LA, to me, moments ago. Take it for what it’s worth.— Greg Sargent (@ThePlumLineGS) December 4, 2015
San Bernardino Sheriff’s spokesperson to Grasswire on reporters entering apartment: “That is not a cleared crime scene.”— Grasswire Now (@GrasswireNow) December 4, 2015
Live TV is constantly confronted with quick calls. Historically, plenty of examples of graphic accidental broadcasts come to mind, from the Challenger explosion to the airplane crashing into the second tower on 9/11; on the day of the shooting at San Bernardino’s Inland Regional Center, broadcast networks cut to a dramatic shootout between suspects and police.
But today’s episode wasn’t a news event. It was a frantic race to beat opponents and grab attention. Without the safety net of editing, live TV requires judgment in the seconds between seeing something revealing and sharing it with millions of viewers. On Friday, amid the media scrum in the apartment of two deceased alleged killers, that judgment was in short supply.Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt