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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Guardian, Journalists' Committee Continue to Shield SF State Photojournalist Who Outed Himself

Posted By on Thu, Mar 11, 2010 at 4:40 PM

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A local committee of the Society of Professional Journalists and the weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian continue to conceal the identity of a photojournalist present at a murder scene in Bayview-Hunters Point last year -- despite the fact that the photographer disclosed his own identity when he entered a picture of the victim's body in a national photography contest.

In a writeup of the Northern California chapter of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee's awards this week, the Guardian refers to a "Student, name withheld," who was honored with an award by the group for invoking the Shield Law to avoid cooperating with police in their investigation into the killing of Norris Bennett, 21.

The former San Francisco State University student, Alex Welsh, was present when Bennett was shot. He later won a College Photographer of the Year award for a portfolio that included a photograph from the crime scene. In a story published last week, SF Weekly chose to disclose his identity in connection with the images, since he had already done so himself in a prominent, national journalistic forum. Welsh no longer lives in the Bay Area.

Guardian city editor Steven T. Jones said his paper's decision to conceal Welsh's identity was based on a request from Welsh and his lawyer. "He was a witness to a murder. He took pictures of a violent situation. There are retribution killings in this city, commonly," Jones said. "We think he had a credible concern for retribution. Just because you guys decide to out him doesn't mean we're going to make the same ethical decision."

Freedom of Information Committee Chairperson and Guardian reporter Rebecca Bowe referred questions about the committee's decision to conceal Welsh's identity to fellow committee member Mark Conrad, who had not returned a phone call at the time of this writing.

Welsh's case is certainly an interesting one. While journalists routinely conceal the identities of their sources, it's an extreme rarity for working reporters or photographers to insist on anonymity themselves -- particularly in connection with published work, or materials submitted to such prestigious competitions as the College Photographer of the Year contest.

As the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted in its own coverage of the case last summer -- prior to Welsh's decision to go public with his work -- his decision to invoke the Shield Law may be just as much about justifying his refusal to cooperate with police investigators seeking a witness statement as it is about guarding the sanctity of unpublished journalistic material. What do you think?

Photo   |   Squeaky Marmot

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Peter Jamison


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