There has been a lot of discussion in journalism circles about the role that the Tampa Bay Times played in a protest flight in which a postal worker flew a gyrocopter into restricted airspace at the U.S. Capitol.
The newspaper knew ahead of time that mailman Doug Hughes planned to fly his aircraft onto the Capitol grounds to draw attention to campaign finance reform by personally delivering letters to members of Congress.
Reporter Ben Montgomery wrote the story ahead of time and the Tampa Bay Times posted him in Washington to cover the story when the Florida mailman landed last week. The paper posted the story as he took off and promoted it on social media.
Although the paper reportedly called the Secret Service and Capitol Police to ask if they knew about Hughes' plans, a Secret Service spokesman claimed they were never told Hughes was actually on his way.
When Hughes landed he was charged with operating an unregistered aircraft and violating national airspace. He is fortunate that’s all that happened – he could have been shot out of the sky.
At issue is whether the newspaper had an obligation to inform authorities about Hughes’ plan and the fact that he was carrying it out then and there. The paper’s editor has argued that its role is to observe and, even though they knew of the plans, were in no way any part of it.
It’s also clear that Hughes had been on authorities’ radar for a while and had even been interviewed by the Secret Service previously.
Some ethics experts have suggested that by working with Hughes to get the story, the paper actually helped to create the story.
The Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, has been critical of the decision as well. Its Vice President, Roy Peter Clark, said in a post on the organization’s website that a paper’s role to observe, cover but not intervene “is surely not absolute.”
In an effort to get an exclusive story did the paper lose sight of its role? What do you think?
Susan R. Miller is founder of Garton-Miller Media, a full-service, South Florida-based public relations firm. Susan is a former journalist with more than 30 years of experience. She has written for local, state and national publications. Her clients include attorneys, non-profit organizations and healthcare professionals.
Garton-Miller Media is a full-service, South Florida-based public relations firm. Founder Susan R. Miller has 30 years of experience as a writer, journalist and PR professional.