The Ethics of Profiteering in the Wake of Walter Scott

Published: Apr 27, 2015 12:00pm EDT
By Lance Rinker, Managing Editor for Konsume Politics

Please Note: This article was updated Apr 27, 2015 @ 01:11pm EDT


While the country continues to deal with the fallout from the continual deaths of citizens at the hands of police officers, there’s another debate raging in the aftermath of the Walter Scott fatal shooting.

South Carolina police officer Michael Slager was caught on a gut-wrenching mobile video clip killing Scott on April 4. The innocent bystander who caught it all on camera, Feidin Santana, shared his footage with Scott’s family and has since had well over one million views on YouTube and has been broadcast on all the major news networks broadcasts, without any compensation to Santana.

The video shows an unarmed Scott fleeing from, what is thought to be, a routine traffic stop for a busted taillight and ultimately gunned down by Slager. According to the officer, whose police report seems to be contradicted by the video, Scott became aggressive and Officer Slager said he feared for his life because Scott was reaching for his TASER.

For their part, the police department fired Slager and he has since been charged with murder.

The debate among many media members and pundit circles is that the footage recorded by Santana is now being licensed for a reported fee of $10,000 per news outlet. This revelation has many pondering the ethics of charging a fee for video footage of a person’s death.

Santana has been working with an attorney and a famed publicist regarding being compensated for the video he took, which has been used all across the globe to date. Santana and his attorney has struck a deal with Max Markson, CEO of Markson Sparks, to begin negotiations with news organizations and others wanting to use footage recorded by Santana.

According to Markson, Santana deserves to be compensated for footage that outlets are financially benefitting from and it was Santana who put his life in danger to make sure the officer in question did not get away with murder.

“I think that the people who might be put off by this are the media outlets that had it for free. Now they will have to pay,” Markson said.

Markson said news organizations had been permitted to use the video for free for a short time after the event, but would have to pay Santana to use it again in future.

“Any footage has to be owned by somebody,” he said. “It’s not like it’s in the public domain. If the Guardian, or any media organization [sic], sends a cameraman to get some footage, then they own it, and it’s the same in this case.”

According to a source familiar with the situation, Markson is charging news outlets and organizations a one-time fee of $10,000, though it is unclear just how much of that Santana will receive.

Markson has gone on record denying he was charging $10,000 to use the video or any clips from it, but he did say the fee would depend on the news outlet and could be as little as $100.

The question this has many asking is whether it is ethical or not to seek profit from a tragedy such as this.

On the one hand, those in the field of photojournalism routinely receive compensation for their work without question. Granted, photojournalists will often have to visit war-t0rn countries, capturing horrific images from regions of conflict, and other more challenging tasks that require them to truly put themselves in harm’s way.

But, the fact remains photojournalists receiving compensation for their images and videos is commonplace and there are no questions of ethics surrounding what they do.

How much harm Santana was in throughout this situation is unclear and which side one falls on defining that likely depends on how dangerous one views being near police during such an altercation.

Todd Rutherford is Santana’s attorney and he defended the prospect of licensing the clip to the New York Times.

"The search for justice is served by turning the video over to law enforcement," while the news, he said, appears to be in the "search for revenue."

With a continued rise in citizen journalism, affordable technology has allowed your average, every day Americans to utilize their cell phone cameras to capture images and video that routinely call into question the claims made by local police forces under circumstances such as these. Without these people doing what they do many of these abuses of power would go unnoticed and unchecked.

The actions by citizen journalists have not gone unnoticed by politicians and local police forces either. State lawmakers have begun trying to push through legislation that would make it a crime for people to take pictures or record video of police officers performing their duties.

Some legislation is attempting to make it illegal altogether, while other legislation is only making it legal if people are a certain distance away from officers, such as 50 feet or so – which happens to be a far enough distance away not to pick up coherent audio.

Is it ethical to ask for compensation for taking video or pictures of crimes committed by police and other public servants? Is there a real and present danger to those that use their time and resources to film these events?


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