Posted by: mobrienweiss | February 13, 2013

From conflicting reports about fugitive LA cop to censoring news to protecting police

LAPD Revenge KillingsJust before President Obama was about to set foot in the House of Representatives to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, the cable TV news stations and online media went bananas because the California cabin in which Christopher Dorner — a former Los Angeles police officer accused of killing several and who had eluded capture for a week — was believed to be hiding went up in flames.

No one had emerged from the structure as it burned to the ground, the media reported. During the State of the Union address, announcements popped up on Twitter and on news web sites indicating that Dorner’s body had been found in the charred wreckage. But then those reports were adamantly refuted by authorities. Some 12 hours later, it was again announced that a body was found inside the building but police haven’t yet confirmed it was Dorner’s body. Also, no one has explained how the fire started, at least not to the media.

In the meantime, the media have come under scrutiny for their behavior during the siege outside of the cabin.

Poynter reports that several law enforcement officials reached out to media outlets and asked them to stop not only live-tweeting about what the police were doing outside of the cabin but to cut the live feeds on the scene so that Dorner couldn’t discover where the police were and what exactly they were doing. The Los Angeles Times said officials were were concerned Dorner could be “monitoring police movement” on TV.

The media compliance to the requests was mixed.

“The San Bernadino County Sheriff’s Office has asked the press to stop tweeting because ‘it is hindering officer safety,'” reported Jim Romenesko. “CBS stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles have agreed to the request.”

@CBSLA tweeted: “Per @SBCountyDA request we are complying and will not tweet updates on #Dorner search.” But a local public radio station in California, KPCC, did not comply. A vigorous debate occurred online about whether agreeing to a media blackout was a good idea or whether it was giving police cover to do whatever they were going to do without having reporters witness it.

As for early reports that Dorner’s body was found inside the cabin, there was a tremendous amount of confusion when LA officials denied the claim, as Poynter noted:

“CNN had a particularly bumpy ride: A breaking news alert at 10:17 p.m. ET said, ‘Law enforcement in California have pulled a body from a burning home and are conducting a forensic exam, multiple law enforcement sources tell former FBI assistant director and CNN contributor Tom Fuentes.’ A subsequent alert, at 12:27 a.m., said, ‘Los Angeles police and the San Bernadino County Sheriff’s Office moved Tuesday night to counter reports that a body believed to be that of renegade ex-cop Christopher Dorner had been recovered from a burning cabin near Big Bear Lake, California.’ And Wolf Blitzer said Dorner had hostages in the cabin with him, possibly based on a misreading of a[n] L.A. Times report, TVWeek writes.”

Given the highly volatile and confusing nature of this story as it was unfolding — CBS’ Chris Evans happened to be accompanying some of the authorities and was witness to a shootout between what was believed to be Dorner and the police — how do you think the reporters and the media outlets fared? What do you think of the request for a media (TV and social) blackout?

Image credit: KABC via Los Angeles Daily News.



  1. Throughout the coverage of this event, i believe that it was a good idea to have the new stations stop live tweeting and the live coverage. I think that in this situation it was easy for the news stations to mix up information and send out wrong information.

    With this type of coverage, it is easy to make mistakes. There was no confirmed news from the police on if the man was inside the burning cabin or not. I think that the live tweeting put the public in a uproar before anything was confirmed.

    Overall, i think that the media outlets and reporters fared pretty well based off what they were allowed to do. The information was still given to the public, which is their main goal

  2. I’m actually on the side of the Sheriff’s Office on this one. I know that in hostage situations and other ongoing police operations with a media presence, law enforcement officials ask cable news to cut live video feeds to keep police movements secret. The outlets then run tape delayed an hour or so, and coverage isn’t severely hampered because of it. I think journalists and news consumers alike should keep in mind that news events are also real-world events, meaning their desire to cover or consume a breaking news story doesn’t supersede the need for the cops to do their jobs.

    In cases like mass protests or small incidences of police brutality, etc., the more smart phones snapping pictures and taking videos, the better. Requests for media blackouts in these instances, should they be issued, should not be accommodated. The more live-tweets of developing stories, the closer a journalist’s (citizen or established) audience can get to experiencing the truth as it happens. Under which circumstances it’s alright to call for a media blackout might not be easy to define, but newsrooms really ought to be prepared to comply when the situation calls for it, i.e. when police are making the move on an armed suspect. Keep your notepads out, of course, but put the phones and video cameras away.

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