An ethical dilemma in Maine as a police officer pretends to be a reporter

Image (cc) 2008 via the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

Now here’s an ethical dilemma. In Livermore Falls, Maine, a man who had taken four people hostage in a home called a television news reporter who was outside covering the standoff. Police asked the reporter to hand them his phone. He complied, and an officer continued the conversation with the hostage-taker while pretending to be the reporter.

It would seem to violate any sense of journalistic ethics — and yet it was a life-or-death situation. What would you have done? I think I would have done exactly what the reporter, Taylor Cairns of CBS 13, did, and then wondered later if there might have been a better way to handle it. I definitely believe Cairns did the right thing in the moment.

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Earlier this week, University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow and I talked with Nick Schroeder of the Bangor Daily News. As I told Schroeder, “You can see what a difficult situation everybody was in. Lives were at stake here.” But I also told him that maybe this should lead to training for both reporters and police officers aimed at coming up with a better solution if a similar situation should arise in the future.

The story came to a gruesome ending. Though none of the hostages was harmed, the hostage-taker, Donald White, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after having been shot by a state police officer, according to police.