And yet, many television viewers recoiled Friday when news crews were surprisingly invited by a landlord to tour the Redlands, Calif., apartment of San Bernardino attackers Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. On live TV — just 48 hours after a violent spree left 14 people dead and 21 injured — cameras broadcast a walkthrough of the place where the couple stored pipe bombs and 4,500 rounds of ammunition. Personal effects included prayer books, jewelry, identification cards and a baby crib.
MSNBC live-streamed the visit, while CNN showed also images after starting with a phone interview.
Journalists on the air seemed bewildered. CNN's Victor Blackwell said that he and his crew originally planned to remain on the perimeter — off private property — never imagining that they would be allowed inside. He wasn't sure what law enforcement would think about the tour (officers weren't present), but he supposed they would see on TV what was happening and return to the scene.
Blackwell later reported that a vehicle with flashing lights did come back and that the landlord, Doyle Miller, rode away in it. "Now, I don't know what anyone can conclude from that, but he is now with law enforcement," Blackwell said.
On split screen, studio anchor Anderson Cooper appeared stunned that the owner of the apartment had decided to let reporters in.
"Not the choice I would have made," Cooper said.
Anthony May, a security expert and CNN analyst, said he had never seen anything like the media tour in his entire career, which included 20 years at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives.
Even the White House wasn't sure how to react. Asked repeatedly about the tour during an afternoon news conference, White House press secretary Josh Earnest offered no opinion.
"I didn’t speak to the president about this," Earnest said. "I saw some of the footage on television, just watching like everyone else."
He added that "what the White House is concerned about is making sure that investigators get to the bottom of what happened" and said "you’d have to ask the FBI and local law enforcement about whether the media access that was granted earlier today will impact their investigation going forward."
The opportunity to do just that arrived about an hour later, when David Bowdich, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office, addressed the media. He neither objected to nor endorsed the press walkthrough but explained that the FBI had already executed a search warrant, removed evidence, and returned the property to the landlord.
"Once we turn that location back over to the occupants of that residence, once we board that back up, that has nothing to do with us," Bowditch said.
Thus, it appears there was nothing legally wrong with Miller's open-house invitation or the media's decision to take him up on the offer, though it's unclear whether everyone who entered the home understood in the moment the implications of their actions.
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that they did. The debate becomes not legal but ethical. The Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics offers the following guidance:
Balance the public’s need for information against any harm or discomfort it may cause. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or undue intrusiveness.
Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish.
Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity or following the lead of those who do.
The question then is this: Does footage from inside the shooters' apartment serve a legitimate news function? I believe it does.
Of course it's not great to rifle through photos with identifiable people in them, as our own Erik Wemple notes that MSNBC did and has apologized for. And perhaps a live stream wasn't altogether necessary. But I believe it reveals to us an important reality about perpetrators of terror — that their daily living often bears a chilling resemblance to our own. In the video at the top of this page, I see a TV, dirty dishes, a shopping coupon and a box of Size 2 Pampers diapers just like the ones my own child recently grew out of.
Footage like this forces us to drop the illusion that the killers we love to "otherize" exist in some kind of separate, evildoer universe.
There is value in this kind of reality check, not that we know exactly what to do with the information. If wackos can seem relatively normal, should we be suspicious of everyone? No one?
Friday's unexpected media tour didn't answer every question. But it's better to understand more, not less, about the attackers.