For 33 years, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay has served the Bay area, and its mission has always been the same: To further create a more informed public and contribute to the formation of a just community by offering a consistent and free medium that is critical, fair, and focused on highlighting underserved and underreported voices and opinions.
In the past few weeks, the legal process has tested that mission.
Last month, a freelance photographer told us they were getting a visit from the state attorney’s office who asked them to sign an affidavit regarding a photo they took, and CL posted, documenting Tampa Bay’s first weekend of George Floyd protests.
Investigators wanted our photographer to certify what time and date a photo published in CL was taken, confirmation that they indeed took the photo and whether or not they know the subject in the photo.
After consulting a handful of journalism organizations and Tampa lawyer Joshua Sheridan, it was CL’s opinion that our photographer was under no legal obligation to sign the affidavit, so they declined. CL then retained Sheridan—a past story source and subject who we’ll no longer write about to prevent a conflict of interest—to assist our photographer in their dealings with prosecutors.
A couple weeks later the photographer received a subpoena to testify virtually on Feb. 25. In response, Sheridan filed a motion for protective order on behalf of our photographer.
In part, the order asks a judge to allow them to withhold testimony regarding the authenticity of the photo. Furthermore, the order argues that the state’s subpoena presents both an actual and/or perceived conflict of interest for the publication and that the testimony sought would violate the public trust regarding the journalistic integrity of this publication.
Plus, the photo is already published online with the dateline and the photo credit, which arguably means that it does not need to be authenticated by our photographer specifically.
Sheridan advised the prosecution that CL’s photographer would not testify until we got a ruling on the protective order.
On Feb. 25, the court rescheduled our photographer’s subpoenaed testimony to June 17.
We don’t know how the motion for protective order will play out in court, but in non-legal terms, CL feels that it’s not our job to help the state prosecute someone who was present at a protest.
When our reporters and photographers head out to cover protests, or any event for the matter, they’re there to capture what they see so CL can publish it for our readers and the community to assess. We don’t withhold photos based on how they make protesters, counterprotesters or the police look. In fact, we’ve been asked in the past about removing photos of certain individuals—a request we’ve denied every time. If something is happening in a public space, our photographers can be there to capture it, and CL is going to publish what the photographer turns in.
Whether it’s photographing an event or interviewing a subject, an important component of our media outlet is acting as a trusted member of this community, and maintaining transparent relationships with the people and sources we cover. Participating in law enforcement investigations is a clear breach of this trust.
To gain some more insight on this topic, CL reached out to a handful of local news outlets—including the Tampa Bay Times, WTSP, WFLA, WFTS and Bay News 9—to ask about how their newsroom policy would direct them to act. Specifically, CL asked these news organizations:
- Has your outlet been contacted about signing affidavits that would verify any information in photos and/or video you’ve published
- Has your outlet received any subpoenas to testify about information in photos and/or video you’ve published?
- If your outlet has received affidavits or subpoenas, did your outlet comply? Why or why not?
None of the outlets we contacted would comment on record.
We’re telling you this because this newsroom believes in providing our readers with as much transparency as possible. We believe in this newsroom’s independence and its obligation to tell the story of the community, supported by as many facts as we can find.
We want to reiterate that we filed a motion for protective order because it’s this newsroom’s position that it should not participate in the state’s prosecution. In fact, reporting on a state prosecution of someone at a protest is more in line with our obligation to our readers, so this post is an effort to do just that.
Our readers’ trust is one of the most important things to CL, and we hope this effort at transparency is a step towards retaining it.
Support local journalism in these crazy days. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you up to the minute news on how Coronavirus is affecting Tampa and surrounding areas. Please consider making a one time or monthly donation to help support our staff. Every little bit helps.