News blackouts quite common

Melissa Wilson

“News organizations aren’t in the business of keeping secrets,” insists David Aeikens, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and full-time reporter for Minnesota’s St. Cloud Times, on the subject of media blackouts. “I’m not sure what happens up there [in Canada], but it just doesn’t happen here in the United States.”

Oh, but it does.

Mellissa Fung was kidnapped near Kabul, Afghanistan, in October 2008 and released a month later. News of her abduction didn’t hit the headlines or the evening lineups, anywhere, until she was released. But Fung’s was neither the first nor the last case of a media blackout being imposed to protect an endangered journalist. At this moment, for instance, a prominent international journalist is being held captive and no news organization has reported it. According to Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute, news blackouts happen “quite frequently” in the case of kidnappings. “I couldn’t put an exact number on it,” he says. “It’s become quite common over the past three or four years.”

Latest NewsPinder says the practice is “fairly widespread. It usually involves international news organizations [that have] had reporters kidnapped in a foreign country.” Stephen Northfield, foreign editor of The Globe and Mail, agrees, adding that those working for the victim “need to move fast, really fast, literally within hours of the abduction” to secure a successful media blackout (also called a media embargo).

It’s not just Aeikens who remains in the dark; Caleb Solomon, executive editor of The Boston Globe, is unfamiliar with the term “news blackout.” This doesn’t surprise Northfield, who, unlike Solomon, works for a paper with several foreign bureaus. “If you don’t have an international reporting presence,” he says, “I don’t think you’d be conscious or aware of a hostage taking.”

David Hoffman, foreign editor of The Washington Post and no stranger to tough situations, says his paper’s policy is that “if the life of a person is in danger, we would withhold publication in order to protect that person’s life and to leave some space for a negotiation… We like to give the benefit of the doubt that if lives could be saved or protected that they not be endangered by something that we publish.”

According to Northfield, the main argument for a blackout is that kidnappers often don’t know whom they have. They know they have a westerner because of how the victim dresses and travels—and westerners equal money—but don’t know initially if they’ve got a high-profile reporter or someone who bandages wounds. Once they find out, the abductee can be used as a vehicle for propaganda and negotiating a release becomes more difficult. There hasn’t been a case in Canada where the motivation for an overseas kidnapping was political, though it sometimes turns that way.

While Pinder says editors generally agree to a blackout, the practice has spurred newsroom debates. Regarding the Fung case, Paul Knox, chair of Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, took issue with Stephen J.A. Ward’s argument that it’s a journalist’s responsibility to take consequences into account. Scott White, editor of the Canadian Press, says when it comes to keeping mum, he treats foreign kidnappings the same as he would a domestic incident. “If this was someone being taken hostage in a bank in downtown Toronto,” he says of the Fung case, “and the police asked us not to report on details or the demands of the hostage takers, we would agree not to do that because by doing so we might endanger someone’s life.”

Others, like Toronto Sun editor Lou Clancy, are not so eager to comply. “I am in the camp of disclosure,” he says, “I am not a fan of any type of media blackout.” In the Fung case, many accused the industry of protecting its own: would the media have extended the same courtesy to a non-journalist? Unfortunately, this answer doesn’t come easy. “I’d like to think it’s not a case of us playing favourites with her,” says Troy Reeb, a senior vice-president at CanWest broadcasting, “but there’s always those courtesy calls made between editors and there is a bit of a clubbiness to the media — not one that I necessarily sanction but it’d be wrong to say it doesn’t exist.”

Northfield argues that the perceived inconsistency isn’t due to news nepotism but to a “competitive advantage” that comes with being a high-profile reporter in an area with a high concentration of journalists. In Fung’s case, her friends could quickly reach out and hit every major news organization in Kabul. An NGO worker, he says, “Probably wouldn’t even know who to call.” By the time they figure it out, the news has broken and an embargo becomes pointless.

However, the online world threatens to quickly make the debates obsolete, says Mary Agnes Welch, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, especially if the kidnappings happen “in a place where there is a critical mass of citizen journalists and Twitterers.” Though there were some low-level leaks in the Fung case, the gates held firm. “It’s an extraordinary thing to happen at this time,” says Northfield, “and maybe it’ll never be repeated.” It’s one thing for the CBC to speed-dial a handful of top dogs, but quite another to enforce an embargo on every blog and Twitter account.

But Reeb disagrees, arguing there’s a level of credibility attached to the major papers and networks that doesn’t translate to the blogosphere. “The big stories that broke on the blogs didn’t become big stories until they were picked up by the mainstream media.”

Case-in-point: the details of the missing journalist mentioned earlier have appeared in one less-than-ubiquitous blog but zero inky headlines, even though the case has been going on for several months. J-Source will not be the one to break this story, but sooner or later, some editor somewhere is going to respark the debate.

Melissa Wilson is a freelance writer and former intern at This Magazine who is gearing up to complete her fourth and final year at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. She is based in Toronto.