Jana Winter, journalism and media politics: Silence from her peers in light of her subpoena is shocking

By Sarah Jorgensen

The ongoing trial of James Holmes, the lead suspect in the Aurora movie theater shooting last summer, has received national attention for its contributions to the national conversation about gun control and mental health care. However, an under-acknowledged piece of the puzzle could have major ramifications on the role of the press. In the days following the shooting, Jana Winter, a FoxNews.com reporter, broke a major new development in the case. According to her article, Holmes had sent a journal full of violent writings, drawings and even plans outlining the shooting to a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he attended a PhD program. This development was especially critical because the judge in Holmes’ case had set a gag order on the case, which meant that no one affiliated with the case was allowed to leak information pertinent to the case – Winter’s source, whoever it was, violated that order. Winter was subpoenaed in January, but she still has not given up her law enforcement source that gave her the information. That choice could land her in jail, since she is not complying with the judge’s orders to reveal her source. While the judge has postponed his decision on Winter’s case, many questions are still raised by this situation.

Winters’ case did not receive much mainstream media attention beyond Fox News originally, which raised some eyebrows within the news industry. New York Magazine’s Joe Coscarelli wrote that, “The hypocrisy of Fox News makes other outlets, especially competing cable networks, which have thus far avoided Winter’s situation entirely, wary of covering a just battle.” Coscarelli and other media commentators seemed concerned that fellow news outlets’ lack of coverage was rooted in politics rather than simple oversight. While other print and broadcast outlets finally began to cover this critical case after the judge’s choice to defer his decision, the question about the slow coverage is still critical. In the past, when journalists have been put on the stand, the journalism community has banded together in full outrage. Winter’s news about the journal was one of the biggest developments in the early days of Holmes’ case – why would other journalists ignore that now that she is in hot water?
While I can’t talk or know about exactly what went into that choice since I was not in the newsroom of those outlets when the choice was made, I can certainly hope it isn’t rooted in politics. With the birth of more biased outlets like Fox News and MSNBC, it is easy to see these outlets as rivals or as antagonists. At the end of the day, though, all of these outlets should be committed to dispersing correct, factual information. Whether or not they cover issues that certain political parties prioritize is a moot point. The ethics of any outlet should be questioned if politics become too large of an emphasis or concern.

Winter made the right choice in pursuing additional information about the case – if journalists didn’t push the envelope, we would be a much less-informed society – but when does that become too much? In the era of a 24-hour news cycle, many news outlets find themselves in the position to make an important decision: whether to be right or to be first. Take, for example, the Newtown shooting in December. Many outlets got key information wrong early in the day of the shooting, including the shooter’s name. Gawker compiled a reel of the news outlets’ constantly shifting and changing coverage of the day, and the result is disconcerting. While this is partially the fault of the sources that the outlets depended upon for accurate information, one has to question if journalists rushed to break the information they received for the sake of breaking it first. Since integrity is a core principle of journalism, being right is the better choice.

Finally, in light of the Boston Marathon tragedy on Monday, the question of what to cover at all comes into question. Many graphic photographs were released in light of the explosions, and some TV outlets broadcast live footage from the Boston Marathon finish line. There is a difficult line to toe during events like this, and while journalists owe the public the truth about a situation, it does cross the line into exploitative if pushed too far. That line may change over time and based on the event, but it is one that journalists must constantly be aware of.

The media landscape is rapidly changing, but Jana Winter’s subpoena should offer the news industry to take a step back to look at the ethics of new media. Where should the line be drawn in terms of politics, the 24-hour news cycle, and in terms of what should even be shown or reported on? It will be interesting to see how these changes in the journalism industry shake out, especially for those USD students, like me, that want to be journalists. Journalists serve an important duty to society and should be held to the highest standards, especially in breaking news scenarios.