The nighttime police scanner: a hypothetical ethical dilemma

Today I pulled the night shift at The Seattle Times. On days when exciting things aren’t happening nonstop, it’s common for the reporter on the night shift to find him- or herself stationed next to the police scanner, listening for anything big. That’s me tonight.

It sounds boring, or perhaps to some it sounds depressing, listening to crimes happening in real time. But to me it’s actually fascinating. You get a glimpse into people’s lives all over the city, people who aren’t exactly having the best day–and it helps you feel what they feel. Crime reporters rarely feel empathy when they’re reporting; if they were empathetic all the time, they’d probably be emotional wrecks. But every once in a while, it’s good to sit by the scanner, keeping my normally detached self in check and allowing myself to feel emotions the victims of crimes feel.

I’m rarely emotional about the deaths, fires and car crashes I report on regularly. But as a fellow intern and I were chatting about the night shift earlier this evening, we asked a question we couldn’t answer: If something were to come up on the scanner that made us far more emotional than usual, could we in good conscience report on the incident?

More specifically, we discussed what would happen if, while we were alone in the newsroom, a victim on the scanner was someone we knew. Would it be a conflict of interest to report on the story?

What’s particularly difficult about this hypothetical issue is the time at which it happens: it’s late at night, and you’re the only one in the newsroom. All other reporters and editors have gone home. Were it during the day, you could easily pass it on to another reporter sitting near you if you felt uncomfortable covering a friend’s tragedy. But you’re alone, and someone has to cover the news. Is it too inconveniencing to ask any coworker to come in, especially considering that few Seattle Times employees live downtown, gas is expensive and there’s a lot of traffic in the city? Is it better to try your hardest to fight back the tears or nagging worry and do your job?

Please weigh in. This is something many young reporters–especially those in entry-level jobs covering the cops beat at night in small communities where everybody knows everybody else–might run up against.

2 thoughts on “The nighttime police scanner: a hypothetical ethical dilemma

  1. Stephanie Kimball says:

    I used to enjoy listening to my scanner at night. Aside from the tragedy, there was comedy such as the time the guy was running a snowmobile in one of the parking lots. I also heard a lifeline call for an ill neighbor and called the contact person, who hadn’t heard the phone call from the lifeline company. All was well, a fall that required some assistance to get up. The neighbors used to call me anytime a helicopter was overhead. I was very sad when the frequencies got scrambled so I could no longer follow the action. I have two scanners if you would like one. There are books available with the frequencies. I think in the case that it was someone you knew, you would do your job and then let the emotions flow after your job was done.

  2. Jessie Higgins says:

    It would depend on who was involved in the accident, and how deeply it effected you. If it was a close family member, best friend, significant other, etc. you would probably do better to call someone else in. The bottom line is how much if effects your work ability. If you can still function, do your job. If you can’t, call someone in. If it ever comes up, I’m sure you will know how to react.

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