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Local TV stations compliance in federal case sounds ethics alarm

click to enlarge On trial: KOAAs raw footage shows former reporter Kris - Van Cleave interviewing an unidentified man during a - February 2003 anti-war protest in Palmer Park.
  • On trial: KOAAs raw footage shows former reporter Kris Van Cleave interviewing an unidentified man during a February 2003 anti-war protest in Palmer Park.

In a move frowned upon by journalism ethicists, a local NBC television affiliate provided, apparently without protest, unedited video footage to the city of Colorado Springs to help assist the government in a lawsuit.

City attorney Thomas Marrese requested, and got, the video from KOAA Channels 5/30 as he sought to bolster the city's defense in a federal court case filed by Citizens for Peace in Space, a local peace group.

In the case, argued in a Denver courtroom July 5-7, the city contended that it was OK to bar six members of the group from conducting an anti-war protest in October 2003 on the public property surrounding The Broadmoor hotel during a NATO conference.

Al Tompkins, a broadcast television expert with the Poynter Institute, a prominent journalism school in Florida, said such raw footage, which has not been aired as part of a news story, typically is comparable to a print reporter's notebook -- something most news organizations fight to keep out of government hands. He couldn't remember the last time he heard about a station turning over footage without putting up a fight.

"Journalists should resist becoming an arm of investigators or the government," Tompkins said.

Cindy Aubrey, KOAA news director, defended the station's actions, saying that the station only provided the footage to the city because it might air it at a later date. She said the station considered the raw, unproduced video "file footage."

"It could have been broadcast," she said.

The city, Aubrey said, subpoenaed the station more than a year ago for the video. She was unable to recall whether the station had reviewed the footage before providing it to the city.

The roughly seven minutes of unedited footage never was shown in court, but that doesn't get the station "off the hook" in the mind of Bill Sulzman, with Citizens for Peace in Space.

"It stinks," he said. "Clearly they were taking sides. They were also supposed to be covering the story."

The footage doesn't show members of Citizens for Peace in Space. Instead, it shows a massive anti-war protest in February 2003 around Palmer Park, during which protesters were tear-gassed by police. The video appeared to support the city's argument that activists can be unpredictable and engage in civil disobedience.

The city made that argument to counter assurances from Sulzman's group that a protest at the NATO conference would have been short and small.

In the video, a group of dancing activists prevents traffic from moving through an intersection. It also shows a group of police officers in riot gear marching toward protesters, ordering them to disperse.

In court, the only video shown was a pair of previously aired news reports. One was from KOAA and the other from KRDO Channel 13, an ABC affiliate.

Judge Richard Matsch ordered the audio turned down for those reports, following an objection from Mari Newman, a lawyer for Citizens for Peace in Space.

Such previously aired stories, like published news articles, don't pose any ethical concern because they are considered to be in the public realm already, Tompkins of Poynter said.

Dave Rose, KRDO's news director, testified during the trial on behalf of the city.

Rose said he didn't fight the subpoena because he only intended speak about KRDO's previously aired reports and not the unproduced KOAA footage -- although he admitted to having seen the entire video before the trial.

"If it had played in court, he would have been vouching for it," Sulzman said. "This on a First Amendment case, of all cases."

A ruling in the case in Denver's federal district court is pending.

-- Michael de Yoanna

  • Local TV stations compliance in federal case sounds ethics alarm

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