For the past five years, news anchors at Baltimore's Fox affiliate have partnered with city police to hunt down fugitives. The segments, aired on the last Friday of every month, were more telethon than ride-along, with mug shots, a brief description of crimes and officers shown at desks fielding calls from the public.
But police pulled out of the collaboration — which helped take more than three dozen wanted suspects off the streets since 2007 — after a man sought in a high-profile assault walked into the studio at WBFF-TV (Channel 45), apologized on camera and left without authorities being notified.
Station managers are trying to revive the segment called "Fugitive Files," but so far their queries to the Police Department have gone unanswered. The last word from police — upset that they missed a chance to arrest the suspect — was an April 14 email that said "this case raises significant ethical concerns and trust issues."
The dispute highlights the sometimes tricky symbiotic relationship between the media and government, where alliances can raise ethical concerns on both sides. The media can draw viewers with such crime coverage, but experts say most try to avoid being perceived as co-opted by government agencies they're supposed to hold accountable.
Christopher Hanson, a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, called the "Fugitive Files" segment a "ludicrous stunt" that erodes journalistic impartiality. "Your job is to get the news and report it," he said.
The dispute arose as police sought Aaron Parsons, a 20-year-old from Rosedale, in connection with the videotaped beating, stripping and robbing of a tourist outside the downtown courthouse in March. Parsons — who has since been charged with robbery, assault and other crimes — is in jail and his bail has been set at $500,000.
Baltimore police publicly denounced the station as they pulled out of the show. A senior police official accused producers of putting their desire for a scoop ahead of public safety and civic responsibility.
Anthony Guglielmi, the Police Department's chief spokesman, wrote to the station that "management had full knowledge that Parsons was wanted by police and failed to notify authorities that he was at their studio."
"Our relationship around 'Fugitive Files' is designed to share information so that individuals who are wanted by police are profiled and the news organization forwards information gained through media outreach to authorities," Guglielmi wrote.
Mike Tomko, the station's news director, said he views "Fugitive Files" — and a spinoff called the "Wheel of Justice," in which a wheel with mug shots is spun and the lucky "winner" showcased as the featured suspect — as a public service.
"They're interesting. They're compelling. But they're not something we do because we think we can get ratings," Tomko said. "The Police Department has a challenging job to do. There are a lot of people wanted on warrants. What can we do to help the city of Baltimore?"
In a statement, Tomko said the show has featured more than 120 wanted suspects, and highlights the station's "commitment to working with police in keeping our streets safe."
Tomko said the agreement with police did not prevent his reporters from asking tough questions. "We have done stories that are very challenging to the police," he said. "Even though we have 'Fugitive Files,' they know we have a job to do. It's never come up that we can't do a story because we're friendly."
The news director called Guglielmi's statements a "misrepresentation." He said Parsons' attorney told the station that his client had been in touch with prosecutors to coordinate his surrender and had planned to go to authorities after the midafternoon studio taping on Friday, April 13.
"We had no reason to believe otherwise," Tomko said. Parson's appearance for the interview was not part of a "Fugitive Files" segment.
Parsons, a party promoter, had been targeted in relation to the assault on St. Patrick's Day weekend before police even considered him a suspect. A video of the incident outside the downtown courthouse on North Calvert Street went viral on the Internet, and computer sleuths identified Parsons and posted his name online.
Police later found the victim — who had filed a report but could recall little of the attack — and started issuing arrest warrants. Parsons' attorney, Warren A. Brown, told authorities his client would surrender on April 13.
But first, he wanted Parsons on television. "I needed the public to see a remorseful suspect before he went off to jail," Brown said.
The lawyer said he went to the television station about 3 p.m. that Friday. On air, Parsons apologized for punching the victim but called his recollection of events hazy, and Brown said his client had nothing to do with stripping and humiliating the man.
Afterward, Brown said he returned to his office to finish paperwork and intended for Parsons to go to police. But police quickly learned of the interview — before it aired. Noting Parsons' failure to immediately surrender, they launched a citywide manhunt, visiting the suspect's apartment, relatives, friends and workplace. Brown said officers accused news officials at the station of harboring a fugitive.
Brown said Parsons surrendered to police at 6:30 p.m. at the Warrant Apprehension Task Force Office on West 29th Street in Remington. The attorney said they arrived to find television cameras camped out front. "They had the press waiting for us," said Brown, suspecting a leak from police. "I thought that was kind of petty."
Guglielmi said the surrender occurred only because police had pressured the suspect.
The incident raised the question of whether station officials should have called police about Parsons. For the media, exclusive information is the ultimate commodity, and the challenge is obtaining such information without appearing too cozy with sources.
Few suspected criminals, or whistle blowers, would talk to a reporter if police were waiting around the corner. But both the news director and defense attorney said no pre-conditions or promises were made for the WBFF interview.
"If the only premise that Fox has is the assumption that [the suspect] was going to turn himself in anyway, then I don't think they have an argument for not calling the cops," said Christopher Dreisbach, director of Applied Ethics and Humanities at the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.
"The station had no reason under basic ethics or journalistic ethics to keep quiet," said Dreisbach, who is leading ethics training for U.S. Secret Service agents after the prostitution scandal in Colombia. "The common-sense thing would've been to pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, I know you're looking for this guy. He's here.'"
Speaking broadly, he said, "the journalism house should keep itself out of the law enforcement house."
Hanson, the University of Maryland professor, agreed, calling "Fugitive Files" more a "public relations stunt and helping the cops" than journalism.
"You can pat yourself on the back and say, 'We're good citizens and so are you,'" he said. "But it's getting pretty far away from what we used to think news gathering is all about."
He did note that the station missed a golden opportunity, and a sure ratings-grabber.
"When this guy came in for an interview," Hanson said, "they could've tipped the cops and had a live arrest."