Reporting on a kidnapping: do journalists get special treatment?

When New York Times reporter David Rohde, Afghan journalist Tahir Ludin and their driver Asadullah Mangal were taken hostage last November, the Times went to great lengths to make sure the kidnapping stayed out of the news.

Here in Canada, the CBC did the same thing when reporter Mellissa Fung was abducted in Afghanistan late last year. Clark Hoyt, the Times‘ public editor, says he would have done the same thing. But others disagree.

In a July 4 Public Editor column, Hoyt wrote:

“But some readers and even other journalists see hypocrisy when a news organization subordinates its fundamental obligation to inform the public to its human impulse to protect one of its own.

“The Times went to extraordinary lengths to quash the Rohde story and to shape information that might be available to the kidnappers on the Internet. Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, was enlisted to keep word of the kidnapping off that site, even as user-editors tried to post it. Michael Yon, an independent journalist, posted an item on his blog in March and was quickly asked to take it down, which he did.

“Michael Moss, a Times reporter, edited Rohde’s biography on Wikipedia to highlight his reporting that could be seen as sympathetic to Muslims and to remove the fact that he once worked for The Christian Science Monitor. Moss wrote similar information on Rohde’s Times Topics page on the paper’s Web site. He and Catherine Mathis, the Times’s spokeswoman, even persuaded a group of New England newspapers to remove Rohde’s wedding notice and photos from their Web site so the kidnappers would not have personal information they could use to pressure him psychologically. I found this last action troubling because The Times takes a hard line against removing information from its own archive.”

Kelly McBride, an ethics teacher at the Poynter Institute, disagrees with the decision to suppress the story. Hoyt explains:

“Dilemmas like the Rohde kidnapping put editors in excruciating positions. Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in Florida, criticized The Times’s decision in an open letter to Keller published online, but she told me, ‘Knowing myself, I can’t say I would have operated any differently.’

“McBride said news organizations need a broad agreement on how to handle all kidnappings. Noting that most withhold some news, like the names of rape victims, she suggested options like reporting kidnappings but withholding names or affiliations of those captured. Such agreement seems a good but perhaps impossible goal in today’s fragmented media world, especially in war zones, where news organizations from many countries may have far different standards.”

This issue was explored on J-Source in “News blackouts ‘quite common'”