The Digital Journalist
In Whose Interest?
May 2007

by Mark Doremus and Karen Slattery

Let's agree, for sake of argument, that video blogger Josh Wolf is a journalist.

That said, we wish to raise a question about his actions as a journalist as they relate to the event that landed him behind bars.

Wolf was recently released from a California prison. He served time for refusing to hand over a videotape to a grand jury. He shot footage of a San Francisco protest of the G8 Summit on July 8, 2005.

A crime was committed at the demonstration and authorities demanded Wolf's tape as part of their investigation. Wolf argued that he should not have to produce his tapes, or testify to the grand jury, because he was acting as a journalist and was protected by the reporter's privilege.

The privilege is there to protect the public's interest, not the journalist's personal interest. Society gives journalists a shield so they can get close to newsmakers, and observe events, to report about them for the public's benefit.

However, Wolf's circumstances raise a question about whether he acted in the public's interest or his own personal interest when he refused to produce his raw video and declined to testify in response to a grand jury subpoena.

The profession's code of ethics says a journalist's primary loyalty is to the public's interest in learning the truth.

The code also requires that journalists avoid any conflict of interest, or appearance of a conflict. The NPPA's Code of Ethics, for instance, cautions the journalist to "avoid political, civic and business involvements or other employment that compromise or give the appearance of compromising one's own journalistic independence."

The reason for the provision is quite logical. Any loyalty that conflicts with the journalist's loyalty to the public's interest raises concerns about the journalist's ability to report fairly and completely.

Twenty-four-year-old Josh Wolf has described himself as an "artist, an activist, an anarchist and an archivist."

The summer before the G8 Summit protest, Wolf was arrested in another San Francisco demonstration – this one protesting a biotechnology conference. Wolf told a news reporter, in Episode 10 of his blog segment entitled "Mutant Street Party," that he was a protester.

Elsewhere on his blog, his mother wrote that Josh sometimes attended events as a protester, while other times he had "been asked by various groups to go to protests and document [police brutality]."

In the case that resulted from the G8 Summit protest, Wolf told Time that he refused to cooperate with federal investigators because he expected them to ask him to identify activists on his tape, arguing that it was "against every moral fiber in my body to sit back and out people for their political beliefs."

Political persuasion aside, Wolf's participation in the anarchist movement he claimed to cover resulted in a conflict of interest that clearly compromised his journalistic independence.

Police misconduct is a problem that should definitely be brought to the public's attention. Society protects journalists with shield laws so they can tell those kinds of stories. But the deal presupposes good faith. We admire Wolf's efforts to try to catch police in the act. We would admire them more if he was truly at arm's length from the anarchists he claimed to be covering, as well as from the cops. That way the audience could be sure he was acting in both journalistic good faith and the public's best interests.

[For more background on the Josh Wolf case, see our November 2006 Ethics column:]

© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.