Ethics in Waco


In addition to J401, I’m taking J675: Media Law and Ethics with Dreschel. Today we’re dealing with the ethics in the media’s behavior in Waco, TX. I’m sure no one in our class is old enough to really remember this, we were all really young when this happened, but for brief background: The Branch Davidians were a cult in Waco, TX. The whole cult is based on the fact that their leader, Koresh, would commit all sorts of sins (things like sleeping with his followers’ 12 year old daughters) and his taking on the sins would cleanse everyone else of theirs. They were also big on End of the World, and so collected firearms like crazy. The ATF wanted to take them down, and around the time the raid was going to happen, the newspapers were going to run a story on the cult. The ATF gets in touch with the media to say “Please wait to run those, we’re going to take them down.” Media refuses, then decides to do a giant story on the raid, and use their contacts around town to find out when. Which would all be fine except…

Basically, ATF sues the news agency later for compromising the secrecy of the raid, because one reporter who couldn’t find the location drove around the back roads for hours and then when a mail carrier (who happened to be a Branch Davidian) asked what he was doing, he told him when the raid would occur. Also, all the news vans in the location constantly would have alerted the Davidians. They say this led to 4 agents and several Davidians being killed, and many more wounded. Waco was just a giant mess.

So the question becomes, does the news media have the duty to get the story first, or the duty to protect the ATF and the people in the compound? In the end, the courts ruled against the media, and I believe for good reason. The courts said the media had a duty because they put the agents in foreseeable danger. I think its just because of the need to protect innocent lives. The story is important, yes, but lives are more so.

Or does the government not have the right to silence the media, no matter what?

Your thoughts?

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