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Thursday, July 21, 2011

What Makes it Okay for Reporters to Trespass After Disasters?

Brian Williams, reporting in April 2011 from tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In the bottom image, Williams is bending over to inspect a bride-and-groom cookbook apparently given to the newlyweds who had occupied the house. I should say that, in this particular clip, Williams seemed to know so much about the residents, it's plausible they were consulted and gave permission. (Top image from an NBC Special Report, next two images from Charlie Rose.)

Am I alone in being bothered by the fact that so many television news reporters, on the scene of a natural disaster, consider themselves at liberty to traipse through people's ruined homes and buildings, rifling through what they find there?

I recall after the Tuscaloosa tornado in April 2011, Brian Williams went into some home – or what was left of it – and found a DVD of University of Alabama football in the remains of someone's home. He picked it up and attempted to say something poignant about it on camera. It struck me – why does he think he has the right to do that?

Maybe television reporters sometimes get permission from owners before they go into homes or buildings. It's possible Williams did in that circumstance. But I certainly doubt that's the custom and practice. A common lack of permission also seems evidenced by the way reporters often speculate about who may have lived there and what may have happened.

As my fellow torts professors know, the law of trespass to land is quite strict. No damages are needed to make out a claim. And there's no need for bad intent. Plain-old going on to someone's land is actionable. That doctrine reflects our society's deeply felt commitment to the integrity of a person's land and domicile.

I'd bet most evening news viewers imagine there's some sort of legal privilege for reporters to do this. But, of course, there's not. Unless they've gotten permission from the lawful possessor, it's trespassing. It's also invasive. Of course it's not exactly the same as News of the World's phone hacking, but it is certainly similar.

I know, of course, why it's not a scandal. It's not done surreptitiously. Moreover, there's now a well established practice of post-disaster rummaging by TV news crews. We've become inured to it. Granted, it's also probably harmless. In fact, it's not hard to argue that it's beneficial, since we generally consider it to be a good thing when the journalistic press offers in-depth reporting on issues of public interest. But I'm not convinced that makes it right.


Posted by Eric E. Johnson on July 21, 2011 at 10:17 PM in Property, Television, Torts | Permalink


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Wow... I've really never thought about this. You might be right that when reporters do more in-depth stories about specific homes, they must get permission from the home's owner. I'm a big Brian Williams fan for his 30 Rock appearances alone, so I'm going to go ahead and believe that's what he did in this case. But I wouldn't be surprised if reporters routinely trespass in storm areas to get their shots.

Posted by: Ben Buchwalter | Jul 22, 2011 12:39:45 PM

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