Media Enter San Bernardino Assailants' Home; Ethical, Legal Questions Follow

san bernardino home
On Friday, the landlord of a home rented by two gunmen in San Bernardino was opened to media, December 4. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Multiple cable TV networks aired reports from inside the home of two attackers responsible for a mass shooting, after their landlord allowed members of the media inside Friday morning. The assailants, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and wounded 21 others on Wednesday morning during a holiday party hosted by Farook's employer in San Bernardino, California. 

Farook and Malik, who were married, were killed in a shootout with police following the deadly attack. Authorities earlier found 12 pipe bombs at their rental home in Redlands, California, that were similar to one left at the scene of the shooting. (That bomb failed to detonate at the time of the attack.) The FBI said on Friday it believes terrorism was the motivation for the shooting. 

For at least a day following the shooting, federal and state law enforcement officials went through the home. In addition to the pipe bombs, they confiscated cellphones, computers and electronic files. According to the Los Angeles Times, the couple's landlord, Doyle Miller, was given permission to enter the home again at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday. 

"They turned everything over in there. There's nothing left," Miller said. "I gave permission to open it up" to media. 

Miller allowed reporters inside despite a California law that specifies that in the event of a tenant's death, "the tenancy continues until the end of the lease term." The rent is to be paid by the tenant's executor or administrator. Given the unusual circumstances of these tenants' deaths, its unclear how that law would hold up to a court challenge. 

Once inside the home, dozens of journalists went through items belonging to the couple and their 6-month-old daughter. Photographs, personal items and even documents were broadcast. In one instance, legal documents belonging to someone who is not a suspect in the attack were shown. Sensitive information was prominently displayed, including the name, address and physical description of the person.

On social media, journalists immediately began arguing about the ethical ramifications of displaying such information and the personal effects of the couple's child, such as her crib and toys. While some argued entering the apartment was in the public interest, others said it should not have been broadcast live and reporters should not have rummaged through items belonging to the family.

Displaying these personal items on live television could lead to privacy complaints, says attorney Randall Kessler. If the person whose identification was shown "starts getting harrassed or threatened, what are the damages? Does this child have to suffer more being known as a victim of this crime in this way? That's the issue," he tells Newsweek

The media's ability to gain quick access to the home is in stark contrast to other cases, such as that of Dylann Roof, a gunman in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Boston Marathon bombers. In general, assailants' homes are kept guarded by authorities for longer spans of time.

Another possible legal issue is trespassing, if the landlord did not in fact have the legal standing to grant access to the home. "It is still somebody's home," Kessler adds. "There is privacy of the family. It's somebody's house and it is their relatives who should have a say." 

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, the FBI special agent leading the investigation said authorities are working to compile more evidence in the case.