On December 2, 2015, married couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and injured 22 after opening fire at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. The attackers were later killed in a shootout with police.
Similar to other breaking news incidents, the media quickly started covering the event, piecing together what happened and trying to get the story out as quickly as possible. The news of the terror incident dominated headlines and news programs for days and questions about whether or not the mass shooting was inspired by radicalism ensued.
On December 3, the media began reporting that, according to officials, the couple’s Redlands home contained weapons and explosives, including pipe bombs and “thousands of rounds of ammunition.” Once the FBI completed its search of the suspects’ townhome, it was turned over to the landlord. This is when the couple’s home would become the center of questionable ethics by reporters and news networks.
Shortly after the townhome was in the landlord’s possession, the landlord used a crowbar to open the front door to home. There is debate on whether or not the landlord actually allowed reporters and photographers to enter the home, as the landlord said he did not allow reporters to enter, they merely “swarmed” the home while the media maintains he allowed them to enter. Regardless, after he opened the door, reporters from various news organizations, including MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal, entered the premises. While a few news organizations, namely MSNBC and CNN, went live with their coverage inside the home, MSNBC received a lot of criticism from their coverage.
While live on-air with MSNBC, NBC News correspondent Kerry Sanders walked through the apartment and rifled through personal items, showing photos and IDs of people who were not known suspects in the case. An article in the Washington Examiner described the scene when Sanders walked through the apartment and entered one of the bedrooms while live on MSNBC: Sanders “held up the driver’s license of the shooter’s mother, as well as a social security card. None of the documents were blurred.”
This is where the ethics surrounding real-time content and invasion of privacy were in question. In a rush to get the latest news, fill time on-air and have unique coverage, the news network decided to go live without really knowing what was inside the home. The network did not have a plan, which proved to be problematic when Sanders started rummaging through the home showing photos of a child and the ID of the shooter’s mom to the camera. While Farook and Malik were suspects in the terror incident, the child and Farook’s mother were not. By having their photos and personal information broadcast on live television, their privacy was violated. This could have put them in danger, especially since the mother’s ID showed her address.
… We regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review.”
After receiving much criticism from the public and other media outlets, MSNBC issued the following statement:
“… 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.”
While MSNBC was right in issuing a statement that took ownership of what happened and admitting it should not have aired the photos and ID, the damage was already done. Farook’s mother’s privacy was already exposed. As with anything live, what has already aired cannot be undone, which is why proper precautions should have taken place to begin with. Did viewers really need to be taken inside the apartment and given a live play-by-play of what Farook and Malik’s house looked like, including their child’s crib? Probably not. Did viewers need to see what Farook’s mother looked like as well as photos of other people to understand the story? There does not seem to be any added value; these photos and IDs just muddied the story.
In addition to issuing a statement, it appears the video that aired on MSNBC has since been taken down as embedded videos in the news stories about MSNBC’s questionable coverage are no longer available. The video also appears to have been taken down from MSNBC’s page. While the video has been taken down and MSNBC issued a statement, there is no apology or mention of the incident on the site. Given the incident happened on live television and the news organization issued a statement and took down the video, it does not seem necessary to post the statement on the story’s page. However, the news organization should learn from its mistake and create a policy moving forward for live coverage.
It was difficult to find information on whether or not Sanders was reprimanded for showing the photos and IDs. If he was not reprimanded, he should have at the very least attended a refresher course on ethics in journalism.
News organizations and journalists everywhere should remember this incident and create a plan when given the opportunity to go live in situations like these moving forward.