Editor’s note: This is the report of a task force assigned to examine media performance in the coverage of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ raid on the Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel. Much of the report is reprinted here; however, it has been edited for length.
On March 4, 1993, The Society of Professional Journalists announced that a special task force had been named to “examine some of the ethical questions raised by the media’s performance in covering the attempted arrest of a heavily armed religious cult leader near Waco, Texas.” At that point the story was five days old, and the task force members were asked to “look into the situation to see if the media did their job properly.”
The story in Waco would last much longer than virtually anyone expected. From Sunday morning, Feb. 28, when heavily armed agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrived at the Mount Carmel site on the outskirts of Waco, until April 19, when a raging fire consumed the buildings, the story drew considerable local, regional, national and international attention. Four federal agents died in a gun battle on the first morning, and more than 80 members of the Branch Davidians died during the siege and fiery culmination.
The SPJ task force was originally suggested by former SPJ President Phil Record of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to examine several issues that had surfaced in the media’s coverage of the first days of the story. By the time David Koresh and his followers died nearly two months later, the issues had become increasingly complex and the media’s role even more controversial.
This report by the special task force is not intended as the definitive judgment on matters of right and wrong behavior by news organizations and the individual journalists who covered Waco. It is also not intended to be a “Protect your profession” or “Circle the VDTs” report produced by a group of fellow journalists.
Rather, this task force report is a reflection on some substantive issues of journalism ethics. It provides an evaluation of the way in which journalism covered one of the most difficult and controversial stories of the year.
Series on Koresh
The Waco Tribune-Herald began publishing a seven-part series about the Branch Davidians and David Koresh on Feb. 27 despite requests by federal authorities to delay the reporting. Was there any legitimate reason to delay the series? How did the newspaper make its decisions?
The task force believes the Tribune-Herald demonstrated both journalistic effort and responsible ethical decision-making in the publishing of its series, “The Sinful Messiah.”
The seven-part series titled “The Sinful Messiah” began on Saturday morning, Feb. 27, the day before the armed ATF agents went to the compound to serve warrants. The newspaper series was the culmination of about eight months of research, information-gathering and interviews focusing on the situation of Mount Carmel and the group’s leader, Vernon Howell, who was to become widely known as Koresh.
According to the Waco Tribune-Herald, federal agents had approached the paper in late January and had asked the paper to hold off on publishing the story. Tribune-Herald editor Bob Lott said he told the agents the stories were nearly complete and that while the paper would listen to the concerns of the agents, the Tribune-Herald could not make a commitment not to publish.
Lott said the paper knew the situation at Mount Carmel had been going on for quite a while. “We were concerned not just with the stockpiling of weapons at Mount Carmel on the edge of the city, but we were concerned more with the allegations of abuses against human beings in the name of religion, particularly such things as sexual and psychological abuses of underage children. And we were concerned with the federal government’s request and we listened to them, but we received no guarantees that the action would be forthcoming. And after weighing concerns on both sides of the question, we decided it was time to let the people of Central Texas know what was going on . . . The level of danger to the children was an ongoing thing as far as we could document and as far as we knew. And the people responsible to society for correcting that situation were not doing it.”
Still, it would be nearly four weeks before the series would begin running in the Tribune-Herald. Lott said that while he listened to the concerns of federal agents, the editors were also weighing questions of “potential libel or invasion of privacy” and also ensuring that they do “the best editing you can do” on such a story.
However, the “major cause for the delay in publishing,” according to Lott, was a concern for security for the paper’s employees and its physical plant based on past instances of violence at Mount Carmel and the ongoing stockpiling of weapons. Lott said that the security issue was the reason for the series beginning on Saturday, “the first of two consecutive weekend days that there would be fewer employees in our building.”
The Tribune-Herald told the federal agents that the paper would consider letting them know when the first story was to be published. The newspaper honored that, informing the ATF on Friday of the Saturday publishing. Lott also said that in their reporting of the story that weekend, “we carefully avoided even a hint of our knowledge that the ATF might be involved,” so as not to alert the Branch Davidians to any actions planned by the federal agents.
Lott said he believes the paper did not compromise its independence by listening to the concerns of the federal agents nor by giving the ATF the brief advance notice of the publication timing. Furthermore, all decisions on conducting the raid still remained in the hands of the law enforcement officials. One ATF agent said the publication of the series by the Tribune-Herald did not force the government’s hand on when federal officials would act against the Branch Davidians. ATF Special Agent Ted Royster told the Dallas Morning News on the afternoon of the gun battle at Mount Carmel that, “This operation had been planned for quite a while, so that did not force us to go today.”
Among the critics of the Waco Tribune-Herald is McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell, who questioned the timing of the series. Harwell also said the paper had limited information on what his agency was doing in investigating complaints about the compound. Harwell, who said he was not interviewed by the paper for the series, said he would not be more specific in his allegations against the paper because of ongoing investigations by the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Attorney’s office.
This task force believes that the Waco Tribune-Herald recognized the seriousness of its decisions on when and how to publish “The Sinful Messiah” series. Editors demonstrated responsibility in listening to the concerns of government officials while still honoring the paper’s responsibilities to its readers and the general public.
This is a case of making ethical and journalistic decisions in the face of competing principles: Truth-telling, independence and minimizing harm.
Certainly it can be argued that the paper had a truth-telling responsibility to provide its readers with essential information about a significant community issue. If the concerns about child sex abuse or illegal weapons were substantive, then the paper had a strong ethical obligation to present that information as soon as possible.
The paper also had the duty of protecting its independence from the same law enforcement authorities who were both requesting prior restraint on publication and who were significant players in the story itself. The authorities may have been motivated in their request for restraint to guarantee security of any plan they had to act against the Branch Davidians. Yet, these federal agents were not specific in how they or other state or local agencies planned to resolve the situation that had existed at Mount Carmel for at least many months.
The newspaper had an obligation to consider external requests and pressures from legitimate stakeholders, yet retain independence in its decision-making. Indeed, the paper’s editors listened to the authorities, but in the absence of specific information about when and how the serious problems at Mount Carmel would be resolved, the paper had an obligation to report the story.
In hindsight, Lott said he wished the paper had presented the story to the community sooner than it did. The self-criticism is healthy. It would seem that given the serious nature of the concerns about activities at Mount Carmel, the month long delay in publishing the story, primarily for its own “internal security reasons” at the newspaper, is difficult to justify fully.
While placing great emphasis on the principles of truth-telling and independence, the newspaper recognized that the dissemination of the information in a series like “The Sinful Messiah” could cause potential harm if it either exacerbated an already tense situation inside the compound or put law enforcement personnel at greater risk in a pending raid on the compound. As is true in almost all complex situations, the newspaper could not predict with complete accuracy what the consequences would be. In such an environment of uncertainty, the newspaper therefore had to make an ethical best choice, based on its duties to report fully and completely while attempting to minimize harm.
We would suggest that the truth-telling principle for journalists is an essential and primary one, outweighing the principle of minimizing harm, except in extraordinary circumstances. If the harm that could be caused far outweighs the value of the information being disseminated, the paper might consider honoring the requests of authorities. Ideally, even in that situation, the journalists might have chosen an alternative solution short of not running the story at all. They might have delayed publication for one day at most, had law enforcement agencies leveled with them and indicated that a full-scale assault was planned for a particular day. Doing so, of course, brings up questions of losing independence and cooperating with law enforcement officials, who had not been forthcoming.
Or the newspaper might have run it on the scheduled day, while leaving out specific information or any highly inflammatory quotes that might have prompted Koresh toward violence within the cult or tipped off Koresh to a potential raid by law enforcement personnel.
The task force found that the Waco Tribune-Herald demonstrated significant journalistic skill and courage in pursuing and publishing the story about the Branch Davidians. It committed significant resources to the story over a long period of time, applying sound reporting and editing and developing a meaningful and in-depth series of reports.
While not perfect in their decision-making, the paper’s editors demonstrated real concern for the welfare of human beings while recognizing their essential role as journalists and their duty to inform the public in a clear and compelling way on a significant issue.
Journalists at raid
Was there anything unethical about reporters and photographers from the Waco Tribune-Herald and KWTX-TV waiting on the road outside the Mount Carmel compound when law enforcement troops arrived on the morning of Feb. 28 to make arrests? Did the journalists’ presence tip the Branch Davidians as to what was happening?
How did KWTX-TV in Waco become the only TV station following the ATF agents onto the compound grounds? Was it just good news sense? Should the station have made its exclusive videotape of the gun battle available to all stations and networks, or was its selective sharing what happens in a competitive industry?
There was justification for the journalists’ presence in the area that Sunday morning to cover the unfolding story. Given the history of problems at Mount Carmel and the detailed reporting on Koresh by the local newspaper that weekend, the story of government action against the Branch Davidians was certainly newsworthy. Furthermore, given that the newspaper and television station were tipped off by sources that the federal agents would be going to the compound, it was only appropriate for journalists to be present.
The task force found no concrete evidence validating the accusations that journalists from the newspaper or the television station tipped off the Branch Davidians as to what was happening. In fact, both news organizations took precautions to prevent any alerting of the Davidians.
KWTX-TV followed accepted journalistic practices in the manner in which it selectively shared its video of the gun battle.
Sheriff Harwell remains very critical of the local media’s presence on the roads to the compound prior to the raid. He maintains that one media representative, either deliberately or inadvertently, tipped off a mailman who lived in the compound. Harwell believes the tipoff eliminated the element of surprise for the ATF raid.
Top-level managers at both KWTX-TV and the Waco Tribune-Herald said they have conducted internal reviews of the actions taken by their personnel on the morning of Feb. 28. Management at both the television station and the newspaper firmly believe their respective journalists took all necessary precautions in their coverage of the story and that no journalists from either of their news organizations revealed to the Branch Davidian members any details of the pending raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The task force believes that the Waco Tribune-Herald and the KWTX-TV journalists took precautions in their coverage that Sunday morning, attempting to remain unobtrusive at the site and to not alert the Branch Davidians of their presence before the raid began. Both organizations demonstrated a sense of ethical awareness as to the consequences of their actions, seeking to cover an important story in an aggressive manner, while still recognizing that their presence could potentially cause problems and harm. Both the newspaper and the television station said they only used unmarked vehicles for their journalists who were in the vicinity of the Mount Carmel compound.
The management of KWTX-TV strongly denied allegations by a Houston newspaper reporter that KWTX journalists were waiting on the compound when federal agents arrived at the location. Station management said their two crews were at least a mile away from the compound until one crew followed the ATF agents down the road as the agents approached and entered the compound for the raid.
KWTX also strongly denied accusations that a station photographer who was located along a road about a mile and a half from the compound that Sunday morning told a rural mail carrier, in a chance encounter, anything that could have tipped off the Davidians. A station executive said that “No KWTX-TV employee made any statement that any activity by any law enforcement agency was going to occur that morning at the Branch Davidian compound or any other place.” The station also said law enforcement personnel took no action in the hours before the raid to restrict the presence or positioning of the KWTX-TV journalists along the roads in the vicinity of Mount Carmel.
Tribune-Herald editor Lott said his paper received a tip “that didn’t come from a media person” about the pending raid at Mount Carmel on that Sunday morning. He said that the only encounter his journalists had with federal agents in the compound area was when one staff member in an unmarked car was told to leave the driveway of a house across from the compound. “He did so,” said Lott. “Just as he did, ATF raiders pulled into the compound.”
KWTX-TV managers said they were tipped off by a non-law-enforcement source about the possibility of ATF agents serving warrants and making arrests at Mount Carmel on the weekend of Feb. 28. They said they followed their “instincts.” Given the history of problems at the compound, it certainly seems logical that the journalists would react to such a tip and prepare for coverage.
Station management anticipated a fairly routine story, to the point where they had the station’s live microwave truck stationed at a Waco church preparing to broadcast Sunday morning services when the raid occurred. “We honestly didn’t think this would amount to more than a knock on the door and a couple of arrests,” said KWTX-TV news director Rick Bradfield.
If KWTX-TV is to be faulted, it is not for its actions that morning. Rather, the station could be challenged (as could the other area media organizations) for not meaningfully covering the Branch Davidians prior to the raid, apparently either overlooking what was happening on the compound or not responding to various indicators related to child abuse and weapons stockpiling.
As to the manner in which KWTX-TV shared its exclusive video of the Feb. 28 gun battle, the station operated in a manner consistent with how most local television handle such video. KWTX shared its material with those stations with whom it had a strong working relationship, including network affiliates and other Texas stations with which it had longstanding, cooperative agreements.
Coverage of tragedy
Some law enforcement officials believe the news media coverage contributed to the tragedy. Is this a valid criticism, or do media deserve credit for their handling of the story?
There is no direct evidence that journalists did anything unethical or unprofessional to contribute negatively to what transpired with the gun battle on the morning of Feb. 28.
The Waco Tribune-Herald and KWTX-TV journalists were at the Mount Carmel location based on reasonable journalistic cause. Indeed, some of the journalists at the scene demonstrated significant courage in assisting the ATF agents who were casualties of the gun battle.
The coverage of the standoff at Mount Carmel as it eventually continued for 51 days is more problematic. While journalists had many reasons to be present to cover the story, the extent and intensity of the coverage as the siege wore on may have exacerbated an already difficult situation. Furthermore, it is certainly possible that the media organizations and the public were exploited by the Branch Davidians who sought publicity for their cause. It is also possible that the journalists and the public were exploited by the federal government officials as they tightly controlled the scene and the information pipeline.
However, to say the media coverage contributed to the tragedy is not a supportable criticism.
Given that hundreds of journalists from hundreds of news operations from the United States and abroad were assigned to Waco, the press and the world expected news to follow. Important facts needed to be revealed, and significant stories told. However, various interviews revealed a pattern of frustration over how news coverage played out over the 51 days. The financial and human resources committed to the story were substantial. That commitment may have enhanced the media’s and public’s expectation that significant news would be occurring at any time, that the standoff would be resolved.
The very nature of this story probably put the at odds with not only law enforcement and Koresh and the Branch Davidians, but with Waco organizations coping with the crisis. Authorities and the sect felt justified in controlling the flow of information throughout the siege. Both needed the press to tell their stories, while the public was expecting the press to deliver important information. The situation was ripe for manipulation all around—and it happened.
This exploitation was magnified by some news organizations’ reporting of rumors and unsubstantiated information. It is clear that journalists need to exercise greater caution and expertise in seeking out and reporting information.
The concerns of social service agencies and clergy focused on the news-gathering approaches of some journalists. Bob Boyd, program director of Children’s Protective Services, said his department was overwhelmed by requests for interviews. He believes a press pool would have better served the public and allow his agency to do its essential work.
The Revs. George and Trish Holland of Waco Central Presbyterian Church expressed concern about the intense media coverage of the siege of the compound, suggesting that the journalists got bored waiting for an outcome. The Hollands said they got tired of hearing and reading about the siege and wanted to know what else was going on in the world.
Beyond individual incidents during the Waco coverage, there is also a large question about the allocation of journalistic resources. Although the Waco story deserved meaningful coverage, the task force believes that too many news organizations overcovered this story to the detriment of other stories in their communities. This raises the ethical issue of the long-term commitment of scarce human, financial and technological resources of any individual story. News organizations must not get trapped by the tyranny of competition or the lure of the dramatic.
While these problems clearly happened in Waco, there are also examples of quality journalism. National Public Radio did some fine reporting, such as its story on Thursday, March 11, by John Burnett. His report probed the corners of this story in terms of religious issues, financial connections, firearms, training and even Koresh’s musical history.
There was some strong reporting by a number of Texas newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the Forth Worth Star-Telegram. The Dallas-Fort Worth network-affiliate television stations devoted great resources to coverage of Waco, and produced a number of fine reports. And KWTX-TV in Waco deserved credit for its reporting in the hours after the gun battle on that Sunday morning in February. KWTX’s journalists demonstrated courage and compassion in appropriately going beyond their reportorial role to help wounded ATF agents.
The Waco Tribune-Herald also deserves praise for its substantial efforts in reporting the unfolding story. The paper faced terrific pressures, not only from critics of its original series, but also to handle the numerous requests by out-of-town news organizations covering the siege. The multi-part series produced by the Waco daily, the culmination of eight months’ work by a reporting team, was a good example of thorough, contextual reporting. It provided background information on the Branch Davidians, investigated gun laws and how they were being circumvented, and pursued rumors of sexual abuse of young girls and other abuses in the sect’s compound. The series provided much of the background information used by most other news media in covering the Branch Davidians. The initial Feb. 27 article was accompanied by an editorial urging citizens to “start asking hard questions of their local enforcers of the law.”
Role of the media
Should media organizations have stayed out of the sensitive negotiations between federal officials and the Branch Davidians? KRLD radio in Dallas became a part of the story in agreeing to air messages ironed out between Koresh and the AFT. Should the station have done this? Should the station have agreed to air pieces of Scripture prepared by Koresh, in exchange for Koresh’s promise to release children from the compound? Should KRLD have done an on-the-air interview with Koresh on the day of the attempted siege? Were these proper roles of the station?
CNN conducted a live interview with Koresh on the first day of the standoff. Was this responsible journalism? Should CNN have worked with law enforcement officials in determining whether to do that live interview?
Was it appropriate for other news organizations to initiate calls to the Branch Davidians seeking interviews?
The task force believes that KRLD radio acted in a thoughtful and responsible manner in agreeing to requests by federal authorities to air the messages and Scripture readings by Koresh. Their actions were prompted by legitimate expectations that they would help resolve the dilemma and even save lives. However, the decision by KRLD and CNN to air live interviews with Koresh raised significant questions of potential harm. Similarly, other news organizations that unilaterally attempted to call in to the compound seeking interviews were potentially damaging sensitive negotiations under way to resolve the standoff.
KRLD radio aired the nearly hourlong messages and Scripture readings by Koresh in consultation with and at the request of federal authorities. The management of the station said it believed that airing the tape would be a significant step toward defusing a highly volatile situation, preventing further loss of life and possibly bringing the standoff to an end.
KRLD station manager Charlie Seraphin said he did not see the station as being “a lapdog for the government.” He said that as a citizen and as a human being, he thought it was appropriate to air the tape with the consultation of authorities. KRLD news director Rick Erickson supported that decision, saying the station was convinced by the FBI that it would lead to the end of the standoff.
Jeffrey Jamar, the FBI agent in charge at that point during the standoff, said he agreed to let Koresh broadcast his message, believing that Koresh would then surrender. Jamar also conceded that he did not point out to KRLD management that he was representing the U.S. government, which licenses broadcast stations.
The radio station’s cooperation with the government officials and its airing of the tape prepared by what amounted to a hostage-taker are actions that media organizations would very seldom take given the importance of journalistic independence. In this unique situation the management of the station appears to have acted in a deliberate and ethical manner.
KRLD’s decision should be viewed in the context of that specific moment and the facts of this particular case. Media organizations should always weigh the impact of such decisions to turn over their airwaves to a gunman, terrorist or hostage-taker against serious consequences related to the loss of journalistic independence and the potential for others to subsequently manipulate the media in a similar manner. A news organization should endeavor to remain as a detached observer of events rather than a participant in the story.
KRLD and CNN’s decisions to do live on-the-air interviews with Koresh on Feb. 28 are more problematic. While KRLD did check with federal agents and did not receive their approval, CNN did not. The wisdom of doing such interviews live during a highly volatile situation is debatable. Station personnel, in general, are not trained in such sensitive crisis negotiations, and the safety net during a live interview is virtually non-existent. The potential for something to go drastically wrong is magnified, and the possibilities of Koresh’s further exploiting the opportunity for his own motives are greatly increased.
If law enforcement personnel who are trained in such situations felt it appropriate for KRLD to become part of the dialogue with a gunman, hostage-taker or terrorist, then a better alternative would have been to conduct the interview on tape in order to provide at least some time for editing the content or reacting to it as necessary. A live interview always carries additional risks. To do one in the highly volatile situation at Waco does not seem justifiable.
While KRLD at least sought the input of law enforcement personnel on the wisdom of such a live interview, CNN did not. To its credit, CNN management agonized over interviewing Koresh live, after a Koresh lieutenant initiated contact with CNN and requested the interview. CNN confirmed Koresh’s identity and decided that the key to the decision was to use an experienced and skillful interviewer to control the interview and not be manipulated by Koresh.
CNN weighed conflicting values: (A) allowing the CNN viewers plenty of time—20 minutes—to make up their own minds about Koresh’s agenda and beliefs, and (B) considering the possibility of what harm could be caused by the live interview.
While it commends CNN’s decision-making process, the task force does not fully agree with the network’s conclusion.
The task force learned that other news organizations, both print and broadcasts, also tried to get interviews with Koresh during the standoff. Those journalists who unilaterally called the Mount Carmel compound were running significant risks of damaging the negotiation strategies of law enforcement personnel.
News organizations must not let competitive fervor or legitimate aggressive reporting overwhelm their responsibility to minimize harm in dangerous situations.
News media access
After several days, law enforcement officials removed the media to such a point away from the compound that some journalists felt that they as the only “neutral” observers there were unable to perform their duties adequately. Who made that decision and why was it made? Did it affect coverage of the event itself, forcing the media to rely on anonymous sources and speculative information?
Federal Bureau of Investigation officials made the decision to move the journalists away from the compound, saying it was for the safety of the journalists, to get them further out of range from weapons fire. While that concern for safety is understandable, journalists have long chosen to accept physical danger as part of their role in covering important stories, whether it be war, civil unrest, terrorists actions or natural disasters.
Journalists have a responsibility to provide the public with as factual and as contextual information as possible in a timely and clear manner. Journalists also have responsibility to the public to hold the powerful accountable, including scrutinizing the functioning of the government. Access to the heart of a story, to the front lines of any battle, is essential for journalists to fulfill those obligations to the public.
In the case of Waco, journalists were kept so far away from the front lines that they were not able to properly scrutinize the actions of the law enforcement agencies and negotiators as they attempted to resolve the standoff. Nor were journalists always able to obtain as meaningful information as they needed to accurately update all aspects of an important, evolving story.
Consequently, too many media organizations fell prey to reporting highly speculative information and rumors, to overusing anonymous sources and to developing unsubstantiated stories based on what other journalists were reporting.
Accuracy and perspective were the casualties of the lack of access to the front lines and the absence of a more meaningful and consistent flow of official information.
Journalists must accept the ultimate responsibility for this failing.
While greater access was needed, it is clear that news organizations could not have unlimited physical access to the scene of the standoff. Hundreds of print and broadcast reporters were at the Mount Carmel compound. To allow all the journalists to be up front would have needlessly endangered the lives of journalists and law enforcement personnel. Furthermore, that approach would have prevented negotiators from functioning effectively toward the legitimate goal of resolving the standoff.
Journalists should have been more proactive in protesting the access restrictions and should have suggested meaningful alternatives. Pool coverage, developed and carried out by journalists, would have been appropriate. A pool situation would have allowed a small group of reporters and photographers to be present on the front lines at all times, sharing whatever information they gathered with all news organizations.
While there were plans for pool coverage to take effect when the standoff might end, no pool coverage was effectively implemented during the 51-day siege.
News organizations must work together to create blueprints for implementing such coverage in these situations and must then cooperate to make sure the pools function well. Competition is a healthy element of the media. However, in some situations—and Waco was one of them—cooperation is a stronger value that better serves the public interest.
Access to the heart of a story also provides some protection for both the government agents and citizens. Rex D. Davis, a former ATF director, said that “the presence of the press can establish what really went on” in situations like the one at Waco. “Having the press on the scene can be important,” Davis said, “because it is almost certain that the people who are the subjects of searches and warrants will . . . claim that officers violated their rights or were racially motivated or otherwise were guilty of misconduct.”
Journalists provide that watchdog role on behalf of the public, but the watchdog must be in a meaningful vantage point. That did not happen at Waco.
Freedom of information
What other issues of access and freedom of information arose during the Waco standoff? Did news organizations effectively challenge government officials when necessary?
Journalists were timid in addressing these issues of freedom of information and access at Waco. The flow of information and the ability of journalists to more completely and accurately tell the story were hindered by restrictions placed on them by the courts. Professional journalism organizations failed to become involved on behalf of the news organizations.
Beyond the significant questions about access at the scene of the standoff, journalists were being kept away from key information and activities on the legal front. On a number of occasions during and after the 51-day siege, court and law enforcement officials prevented reporters from full access. Court appearances were held secretly. Hearings were closed to the press. Key documents ranging from motions to government responses to arrest and search warrants were sealed.
In case after case there was no meaningful protest from the news media to this serious threat to the free flow of information. By not doing its best to secure all information it needed, news organizations were not honoring their ethical responsibility to keep the public well-informed.
The local media in Waco were clearly challenged by the scope and duration of the story, and they could have used meaningful help from professional journalism organizations to fight the access and freedom of information battles. Significant support was not forthcoming. The Society of Professional Journalists, The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and most major media organizations were not as proactive as they could have been in intervening on behalf of journalists covering Waco when help was needed on the access front.
Journalism can learn some important lessons from what happened at Waco.
The experiences from the coverage of that story, combined with the lessons learned in the coverage of other recent hostage-taking stories like the prison takeover by rioting inmates at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, teach us a good deal. Journalists can be better prepared to make decisions when directly involved in ongoing news coverage about suicidal or homicidal individuals, whether it be a hostage-taking story, a terrorist action, or a prison takeover.
What role should the news media play in covering events such as the standoff at Waco between government agents against a heavily armed and reportedly dangerous cult? What role should journalists play in covering hostage-taking situations in which innocent lives are placed in danger? What is the appropriate journalistic response to calls by law enforcement agencies, or even the extremist/provocateurs themselves, for publicity, control of information or open access to news audiences? How can journalists do the best job possible? Are there any principles or guidelines journalists can turn to in such ongoing and unpredictable crises?
To begin answering these questions, we need to recognize the fundamental role of journalists in society.
We wish the news media did not disturb the comfortable status quo or cause any of us any discomfort or pain, but they do, in their effort to create the greater good of informing and educating the citizenry about significant issues.
Journalists are in the business of gathering and distributing information—the more accurate, truthful, thorough and insightful its contents, and the less harmful its effects, the better. Ideally, they do so out of altruism, out of civic obligation to maintain a participatory democracy. Realistically, they do so as a constitutionally protected commercial enterprise, singled out as the one business that government should leave alone so it can be part of the institutional checks and balances system that helps us govern ourselves intelligently.
Therefore, it is essential to recognize that journalists also have a fundamental duty to remain independent of external forces that could pollute the channels of communication.
Media-watchers are easily upset by the tendencies of the press to err in reporting, to distort truth as the critics define it, to needlessly cause harm. There are all sorts of reasons why news turns out the way it does, particularly news of complex social issues. When it comes to dealing with even routine affairs of institutions such as religion, government, the military, business or prisons, let alone ongoing crises centering around cults and breakaway sects or prison uprisings and hostage-taking incidents, journalists are seriously challenged.
Take religion, for example. We might suggest, as did Terry Mattingly in the July 1993 Quill (the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists), that several fundamental biases cause inadequate coverage of the routine activities of mainstream organized religion: 1) the bias of space, time and resources; 2) the bias of knowledge; 3) the bias of worldview; and 4) the bias of prejudice.
A good deal of evidence suggests the press tends to cover cults, sects, breakaway groups an deviant individuals as just another fascinating set of newsmakers. Relying on traditions of the craft learned in journalism schools or on the job, reporters and editors tend to define the activities of cults and sects (and, in more extreme instances, of terrorists and hostage-takers) as newsworthy when, in part:
- They deviate from the norm;
- They involve ideological or physical conflict;
- They involve highly quotable or charismatic individuals, who are skilled in using the media by offering themselves up for interviews, photo ops and sound bites that permit print and electronic journalism to “package” their viewpoints and symbols;
- They feature media-savvy spokespersons for the establishment who are readily available to help “put things in perspective,” preferably by countering each and every claim of the newsmakers;
- They are conveniently (physically and fiscally) reportable because of proximity;
- The resolution of the activities remains in suspense, so the media have time to define the “unfolding drama”;
- Competing media have allocated resources to the same stories.
These news traditions are not inherently flawed or immoral. They exist for a variety of justifiable reasons, not the least of which is the public’s hunger for such news. But they are craft-based judgments, inherently amoral. That is, as put into practice they do not necessarily entail ethical principles such as justice, minimizing harm, beneficence, treating all individuals as ends in and of themselves rather than means to an end, acting out of virtuous motives, truth-telling, etc. The latter motives may be involved in the enterprise, but they are not necessarily so, particularly if the news media are responding primarily from craft or professional concerns.
Therefore, out of unquestioned traditions, or ignorance, or indifference, or insensitivity, or prejudice, or merely out of having been co-opted by the establishment or the rebels and their propaganda, journalists have real challenges when handling the complex tasks at hand.
The challenge at Waco
In Waco, far more than a truthful and independent media system was at risk. So were the lives of Branch Davidians, law enforcement agents and perhaps even the lives of journalists and onlookers — as well as other citizens in other locales where copycat scenes might transpire.
The scenario challenged journalists to remain at the cutting edge and report all they could of the story, resisting the tendency to become part of the story or to shape events, to serve the public interest while reporting whatever the public might be interested in; to serve the public while honoring their vested interest in being competitive with other media; to protect the independence of the press from any manipulation by Koresh, or to a lesser extent, by law enforcement agencies, while recognizing the impossibility of acting alone in such a complex arena.
However, yielding to the temptation to be a dominant force in this unfolding drama posed the very real possibility that journalists would be caught up in a bloody confrontation that served very little social purpose.
Many of the issues considered by this task force cut right to the core of a conflict between truth-telling and independence; others entail truth-telling and minimizing harm; others entail independence and minimizing harm; as suggested earlier, some issues involved all three principles.
The journalists in this scenario were not trained negotiators, fully prepared to counsel people in psychological crisis. On the contrary, their role was ideally as detached observers and at times seemed more like that of provocateur. The temptation was to approach interviews with a “use-and-be-used” mentality, knowing that Koresh and the Branch Davidians needed air time and newspaper space just as much as the news media needed to maintain the flow of the story.
Journalists were often tempted to stir up rather than placate the volatile situation. On several occasions interviews with journalists and others indicated that the frustrations of being physically removed from the scene brought on a tendency to report speculation and innuendo, even to base stories on interviews with other journalists rather than principals.