In covering kidnappings, news calls are all about the details

Paul Knox

Paul KnoxIf conversations about the Mellissa Fung case are any guide, Canadian journalists are eager for guidance about how to handle kidnapping stories.

Stephen Ward, writing on J-Source, says the answer is “consistent, explicit guidelines” that will apply the principle of “minimizing harm” to all kidnappings, not just those of journalists.

Those who question the need for a news blackout on Fung’s kidnapping are guilty of “ethics by slogan,” Ward says. He “can’t imagine that any responsible person,” faced with the same choice as CBC News Publisher John Cruickshank, “would have done anything different.”

Alas, where news is concerned, consistency is notoriously elusive. The issues are much more complex than Ward suggests. And instead of beating ourselves up about our supposed ethical weaknesses, we should look to actual experience for clues to sound decision-making about what to do when journalists, or others, are kidnapped.

Let’s begin with Ward’s attack on so-called sloganeers – which he pursues by invoking one of the hoariest slogans of all: “No story is worth a life.”

A version of this bromide kicks off the section on terrorism and hostage-takings in The Canadian Press Stylebook. Quarrel with it at your peril, it would seem.

Yet sadly, more often than we may care to admit, the actions of journalists lead directly to deaths.

In May 1996, the U.S. Navy’s Admiral Jeremy (Mike) Boorda committed suicide shortly before he was to be interviewed by two Newsweek reporters about allegations that he had worn combat medals he had not earned.

The magazine was severely criticized for pursuing the story. “I hope you can sleep well tonight,” a caller on a radio open-line show told one of its editors.  Then Newsweek fought back. Evan Thomas, one of the reporters, said he was “devastated” by Boorda’s death, but added: “We’ve got to do our job.” 

Was pursuing the story worth Boorda’s life? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean Thomas and his colleague were wrong to book the interview. And it shouldn’t stop reporters from chasing stories that turn on official integrity. A conscientious journalist in the same circumstances today would do exactly as the Newsweek reporters did.

“No story is worth a life” doesn’t reflect current practice in journalism, nor is it much help in making tough editorial decisions. We may never get used to the fact that people occasionally die as a consequence of decisions made by journalists. But we shouldn’t shrink from acknowledging it.

Each one is unique

Of course, there’s a difference between something no one could reasonably foresee, such as Boorda’s suicide, and an obvious or continuing threat, such as existed in the kidnapping of Fung.

Kidnappings play out over time; initial decisions may have to be re-assessed as new developments occur. Sometimes they repeat earlier patterns; sometimes they don’t. They involve many actors with differing motives, some of which may be unclear. In some kidnappings the arguments in favour of a news blackout appear compelling. In others, there may be a good case for full coverage.

Editors and commentators emphasize the individuality of each incident. “A kidnapping is a unique circumstance,” said Louis Boccardi of the Associated Press in 1994, defending the decision to suppress news of the kidnapping of reporter Tina Susman in Somalia. “I don’t think there are any good rules for this,” added Bill Orme, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists at the time.

Susman’s kidnapping bore similarities to Fung’s. She was grabbed off a street in Mogadishu, apparently by criminals without political motives, and held for 20 days. At least 15 news organizations knew about the incident, but kept quiet at AP’s request until after Susman’s release.

At times, however, well-respected news organizations have fully covered employee kidnappings.

In 2006, the Christian Science Monitor kept quiet for two days about the news of freelancer Jill Carroll’s abduction in Iraq, but then published an appeal to her captors to release her. Last year, journalists not only covered the case of BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was held for four months in Gaza, but campaigned loudly for his release.

Whether the victim is a journalist or not, most kidnappings become public shortly after they occur. And most victims are eventually released, with or without a news blackout.

A kidnapping is a terrible ordeal for the victim, regardless of the outcome. But kidnappers normally have a powerful incentive to keep their hostages alive. So there’s no obvious correlation between a lack of publicity and the victim’s safety. The case for a blackout can’t be assumed; it’s a case that has to be made.

Is it news?

A news blackout will only be an issue if the event is newsworthy to begin with. And not all kidnappings are.

Newsworthiness is notoriously hard to define, but several factors come into play. In kidnappings, the prominence of the victim is one of them. Famous people, and those who have the capacity to influence current events significantly, are more newsworthy than private citizens. It would be a brave editor or news director who would try to keep the abduction of a prominent political, sports or entertainment figure under wraps.

Are journalists newsworthy? At least one gatekeeper thought Susman was not. “Tina Susman was not a public figure in whom there would be a lot of interest,” said Chicago Tribune foreign editor Jim Yuenger, explaining why he honoured AP’s blackout request.  But Susman’s abduction was widely reported when it was over, and in 2008, with scores of journalists being kidnapped every year, Yuenger’s argument wouldn’t cut much ice.  

Circumstances and context are also relevant. A kidnapping may be a dramatic public event, witnessed by many. It may be part of a trend, as with the abduction of scores of foreigners in Iraq following the U.S. invasion. The kidnappers may employ novel methods. They may belong to a hitherto unknown organization with fresh political demands.

Doing the right thing

Assuming a kidnapping is newsworthy, what are the possible justifications for suppressing information about it?

Local news media often honour police requests to restrict coverage of kidnappings or hostage-takings in progress. Kidnappers themselves may demand that a victim’s family maintain a news blackout – usually because they want to negotiate a ransom demand privately, without the involvement of police.

In foreign kidnappings, the need for a blackout is usually harder to assess.

In political kidnappings, some argue that publicity should be withheld to deny the perpetrators a platform for their views. But if the kidnappers have a political motive, the kidnapping is by definition part of a larger story. Surely it’s for audiences, not news editors, to judge the justness of the cause.

Others suggest that if kidnappers discover information about their victim in post-abduction news coverage, they’ll find it easier to set a realistic ransom demand and make it stick. This argument had more force in the days when our personal details weren’t splattered across the Internet.

Some say “listen to the experts.” But the experts – especially those paid to advise the employers of kidnapped personnel – are hardly impartial observers. If professional security consultants had their way, stories about kidnappings would rarely appear except after the fact.

Government officials, operating under the additional constraints of privacy laws, are equally averse to publicity. Gar Pardy, former director-general for consular affairs in Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department, has urged the Canadian news media to suppress news of all kidnappings, as they did with Fung’s. Referring to kidnappings of Canadians that occurred on his watch, Pardy said news coverage “did nothing to help” and sometimes delayed the victims’ release.

Yet in one of these cases, which I covered as a Globe and Mail reporter, the victim’s estranged wife conducted an aggressive public campaign on behalf of her husband. In another – the abduction of several pipeline workers in Ecuador – the political context (the civil war in neighbouring Colombia) demanded that the story be followed closely.

Well-connected victims are probably more likely than others to be the subject of a news blackout. As far as I’m aware, no one argued for suppression in the case of Amanda Lindhout, the Alberta freelancer now in her fourth month of captivity in Somalia. Friends of web journalist Beverly Giesbrecht (Khadija Abdul Qahaar), who was abducted last month in northern Pakistan, apparently felt it was useful to speak to reporters about her.

Neither of these two had the backing of a large organization. Perhaps news coverage increases the likelihood that their cases will be taken seriously by the authorities, and by others in a position to help.

Drawing lessons from practice

Given the current state of public knowledge about the Fung case, I’d be the last person to challenge the CBC’s decision to seek a blackout. This is partly because I know John Cruickshank as a seasoned news executive who’s had to make many tough calls over the years. But mainly, it’s because I don’t know the whole story.

I don’t know what messages were being received from Fung’s kidnappers, what was happening on the ground in the region where she was being held, what the CBC’s security consultants were basing their advice on, or many other significant details.

What I do know is that a blackout is not always necessary, let alone imperative – and that there may be times when publicity is the victim’s best friend.

Newsroom guidelines will only be helpful if they emerge from a comprehensive investigation into current and past practice by news organizations. The more we know about what has actually happened, the more likely we’ll be to make sound decisions in a future we can’t anticipate.

At this point, only a few preliminary observations can be made.

First, in the Fung case, the CBC could not and did not react solely as a news organization. As an employer, legally and morally, it owed (and still owes) a duty of care to its employee. Any organization in a similar position can be expected to act differently from others – since, among other things, publication may increase the price of the victim’s release. What that means for other news organizations’ choices is open to question.

Second, decision-making guidelines are likely to be general, not prescriptive. Deciding whether to publish is just one of many choices to be made. The International News Safety Institute’s kidnapping guidelines mention news blackouts as a “consideration” for crisis-management teams, but warn that “they can only be maintained for a short period of time.” 

Third, any blackout should be followed by the fullest possible disclosure. Writing about the Susman case, Judith Matloff, a veteran foreign correspondent and Columbia University instructor, approved of “holding a story for a few days or weeks to protect someone.” She justified this in part by noting: “The news will ultimately get out.” But in fact, AP ran only a 400-word story on Susman’s release. Nor has the CBC told the full story about Fung. We are left to sift through the conflicting information published by others about exactly who was holding her, the circumstances of her release, alleged plans to free her by force and the role played by Afghan authorities.

Finally, crisis guidelines, no matter how well grounded in practice, won’t change the basic nature of an editor’s job.

Editors aren’t actuaries or philosophers. They get paid to make judgment calls on news, not ethical constructs or calculations of risk. Instinct tells them what their audiences demand, and what they will tolerate.  Experience helps them assess the credibility of sources and assign weight to the factors in play.

But their most important tool is information. Sound decision-making about kidnapping coverage, or anything else, depends more than anything on the fullest possible knowledge of the facts. That’s where any inquiry into the rightness or wrongness of a publication decision – past, present or future – must begin.

Paul Knox is a former foreign correspondent (based in Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro) at The Globe and Mail and was foreign editor of the paper between 2004-5. He is currently chair of Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and of the Canadian Issues committee of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE).