During a 14-hour armed standoff in a house he had forced his way into, Donald White of Jay did something unusual: He called a local reporter.
The reporter, who was on the scene, answered the call and handed the phone to a police officer, who made the even more unusual move to talk to White while pretending to be the reporter he had requested.
White, 44, had taken four people hostage inside a Livermore Falls home at 5:30 a.m. on Monday. State, local and federal police responded to the armed confrontation, which required the Maine State Police’s tactical response team to diffuse.
One of the hostages escaped early Monday and two others escaped later that evening. The last of the four hostages was released late Monday night.
When he was called during the standoff Monday night, CBS 13 anchor Taylor Cairns handed the phone off to police, who “continued the conversation with Donald White using language to make it seem like they worked for the media,” according to CBS 13.
This, some experts say, was problematic.
The incident “raises media ethics concerns,” according to Dan Kennedy, a professor of media ethics at Northeastern University and a journalist with WGBH in Boston. That said, Kennedy doesn’t blame anyone for veering out of their professional lane, recognizing that “in-the-moment” decisions were required.
“You can see what a difficult situation everybody was in,” Kennedy said. “Lives were at stake here.”
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However, police posing as a reporter is an example of something that could erode public trust in journalism. Those kinds of blurred roles make it more difficult to believe that people who introduce themselves as reporters really are who they say.
As journalists and reporters, “we want to avoid those kinds of situations,” Kennedy said. “We don’t want to be seen as an arm of law enforcement in any way. What happened in this particular situation does have the potential to erode that line.”
To Michael Socolow, a professor of journalism at the University of Maine, the important question isn’t what the police did with the reporter’s cellphone, it’s “whether the cellphone should have been handed to police in the first place, without a warrant or other legal means of compulsion.”
That’s a complex question, Socolow said, involving First Amendment protections, press freedom and journalistic independence, and what occurred in the moment in that specific situation. But it rests on the idea that “a free and unencumbered press is essential to democracy.”
“Reporters should never simply turn over their reporting tools, notes and other materials to the government without very good cause and consideration, because they have been given constitutional rights to protect the public’s access to that information,” Socolow said.
“Protecting law-breaking, even criminal, news sources has a long history in the U.S., because without such protections, we never would have known about things like the NSA spying system, the torturing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other vital news stories. Just today, a reporter in Iowa was acquitted in court, having been arrested for prioritizing the public’s right to know over compliance with the police during last summer’s protests.”
The situation reminded Kennedy of occasions when news photographers are in chaotic situations, like protests that become violent or destructive. Police can sometimes request that footage to identify suspects.
“We always fight that,” Kennedy said. “We always say no.”
White, who was shot by police during the standoff, died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, according to the state’s chief medical examiner.
Maine State Police deferred an inquiry about the incident to the attorney general’s office, citing the ongoing investigation. The attorney general deferred questions back to the Maine State Police.
Responding to inquiries, Cairns said that CBS 13 reporters were not allowed to talk to other media outlets without permission.
Maj. Bill Ross, head of operations for Maine State Police, however, told CBS 13 that Monday night was “a unique circumstance” and “not a good practice.”
While Monday night was hard to plan for, police could benefit from developing more training protocols that could help them know what to do when a situation gets blurry like it did in Livermore Falls, Kennedy said. Journalists could too.
“If the police ask for your phone, what should you do?” Kennedy said.