COLUMBUS, Ohio — The role of a local television station in a roundup of undocumented workers by federal agents here has prompted charges by some area journalists and scholars that the news department violated professional ethics by working too closely with law enforcement officials.
The concerns stemmed from a WCMH-TV report that Immigration and Naturalization Service agents arrested 12 undocumented workers June 19 after being contacted by the station, an NBC affiliate. They were charged with entering the country without documentation and were released on their own recognizance pending a hearing.
"Today's raid culminates a five-week investigation that started with an anonymous phone call to Newswatch 4," reporter Jim Schroeder said on the evening newscast. "We checked it out and found dozens of workers who looked Mexican and spoke no English. A few days later, INS agents from Cleveland came to Channel 4 to view the tape. Based on that and information from other sources, they obtained the search warrants for today's raid."
Schroeder said in an interview later that he called the INS as a way to verify that the suspects were, in fact, undocumented. "When somebody makes an accusation that folks are illegal aliens, who better to ask than the INS?" he said.
Some Columbus journalists and academics said that the reporter breached professional ethics by inviting police agents to view his tape.
"You never notify the government," said Pat Schmucki, editor and associate publisher of Columbus Alive, a weekly newspaper. "By doing that, they've opened the door to losing the trust of their viewers" by being seen as an arm of the government, rather than as an independent source of information.
"We've worked on a lot of drug stories, and the police are involved from the standpoint that you need to get information from them," she said. "But if I knew of a crack house, it's not my responsibility to work with the police on that. In my mind, that's collusion."
Bill Vance, director of news operations for CBS-affiliate WBNS here, agreed. "I would do my story. I would put it on the air and then ask the agency to respond," he said in an interview. "Either I got a story or I don't got a story. It doesn't depend on the cops telling me."
Bob Papper, managing editor for news at ABC-affiliate WSYX here, said that his station's policy is never to let government officials view raw tape. "We're separate. That's why they call it the Fourth and sometimes Fifth Estate."
WCMH, Columus' top-rated news station, has an open policy of working with police agents, though the practice is not common, said news director Ron Bilek. "My feeling is that if it's an ongoing investigation or where we're unclear, I feel way more comfortable showing it (to police) rather than putting it on the air."
Reporter Schroeder said that he could think of no way other than calling federal agents to establish that the workers were undocumented. "I did not have the authority to go out there and ask, 'Do you have a green card?' It would have been irresponsible of us to do a story, in fact, without checking with the experts in this."
Jim Harless, a journalism professor at Ohio State University, called that claim dangerously naive.
"If I am dependent on the government for authenticity, I am in deep doo-doo," Harless said. "John Milton pointed out 300 years ago that you don't have to do it that way. Why do I have to go to the cops to authenticate? It seems that there are other ways to authenticate, and I think that automatic tie-in to the government is what bothers me."
He said that WCMH should have tried to interview whoever hired the workers, and the workers themselves, because "you never know what you're going to find."
"If you rely on the government for authenticity," Harless said, "you become a mouthpiece for the government, or could become a conveyor belt for the government."
Traditionally, journalists have fought government intrusion into the newsroom, he said. "The point of view of the profession has been 'leave me alone.' And here's Channel 4 saying, 'Here, come in; take a look.' "
What bothered Harless most about the broadcast, he said, was the reporter's attempt to cast the undocumented workers as villains by suggesting they were dangerous because they worked with nail guns.
In the broadcast, Schroeder said, "The agents' biggest concern going in: these air-driven nail guns the workers use which can shoot with force enough to drive a nail through a person's skull."
Although no one resisted arrest, Schroeder said that he felt compelled to report on the nail guns because their danger was stressed in the agents' morning briefing.
That implication drove Arturo Presas, president of the Hispanic Alliance of Ohio, to threaten to picket the station. Presas, who claims to represent about 12,000 central Ohio Latinos, complained of the station's depiction of Latinos as dangerous lawbreakers.
"I have had numerous calls today from legal residents who fear they are going to be harassed because of their brown faces," he said the day after the broadcast.
WCMH officials invited Presas to appear last Thursday on the 7 p.m. newscast, which includes a community discussion segment. He did, and no picketing was done.
Presas suggested that the reporter focus on the employer who could be fined for hiring undocumented workers. He noted that the broadcast made no mention of any employers. The station has not followed up on that aspect of the story since his appearance.