How to report on kidnappings: Star public editor weighs in

After attending a Toronto panel discussion about news blackouts, Toronto Star public editor Kathy English weighs in on the difficult subject of covering kidnappings.

In a Nov. 21 column titled “How to report on kidnappings,” English wrote:

The Star agreed to the news blackout of Fung’s abduction. We reported Fowler’s kidnapping after it was reported by the international news agency. Weeks before Fung was nabbed in Kabul, the Star reported on the kidnapping of freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout, who has been held hostage in Somalia for more than a year now.

“At that time, the Star did not have a policy governing this issue of withholding news of kidnappings. As a result of the issues raised by Fung’s kidnapping and the soul-searching that followed, the newsroom has since enacted a policy similar to that of The Canadian Press. The policy states at its outset that “no news story is worth risking someone’s life.”

The column stemmed from a Canadian Journalism Foundation event on Nov. 17 featuring Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, who was kidnapped in December 2008 with his colleague, Louis Guay, in Niger and held in the Sahara desert for 130 days.

On the panel with Fowler were CTV news president Robert Hurst, Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank and Globe and Mail foreign editor Stephen Northfield.

Fowler believes the coverage of his kidnapping negatively affected his situation and he would like to see news blackouts become standard in kidnapping cases.

Earlier this month he told the Star:

“Anything could inflame or excite them. When the media hyped my CV, the price went up.”

In her public editor column, English concluded:

“[Fowler] stressed that ‘breathless’ conjecture about unconfirmed information can be especially damaging to hostages. In light of that, I have concerns about some of the unconfirmed information widely circulating on the Internet that the Star has reported in the Lindhout case.

“Clearly, serious discussion about the ethical issues of reporting kidnapping cases is underway. What’s less clear is the practical question of whether any news can be kept secret in this global day and age.”