If a journalist is kidnapped in a war zone, should the media make a sound?
The abduction of NBC News correspondent Richard Engel in Syria last week has highlighted the ethical dilemma media outlets face in balancing their responsibility to protect their reporters and to deliver critical news to their audiences.
Engel and several colleagues were released unharmed Monday, but leading US television and print media withheld news of their abduction for five days until information about their disappearance seeped into foreign news and social networking sites like Twitter.
“We know that when a person is being held hostage, the higher their profile, the greater the risk to their lives,” an executive at a media outlet that participated in the information blackout told RIA Novosti on Tuesday.
Global coverage of the abduction would have clued his captors in to Engel’s reputation as a leading foreign correspondent on American television, said the executive, who spoke on the condition that he not be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“When they understand who he is, the price on his head—and all of the people with him—goes through the roof,” the executive added.
Engel and his three crew members went missing last Thursday, according to NBC News. The network attempted to keep their disappearance under wraps, and leading US newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post agreed to maintain the blackout. Rival television networks CBS, ABC, CNN and Fox News also waited until Tuesday – after Engel’s release – to report the news.
CNN said on its web site that it complied with NBC News’ request “just as we would from any organization or company missing an employee in such a high risk area.”
“The reason is so fact finding and any negotiations to free them can take place before their capture becomes a worldwide news event. Hostage negotiators say that once the global spotlight is on the missing, the hostages’ value soars, making it much harder to negotiate their freedom.”
Engel and his team were traveling with a group of Syrian rebels when they were ambushed by about 15 armed men, the reporter said in a televised interview Tuesday morning. The attackers executed one of the rebels on the spot but did not physically harm him or his crew during their captivity, he said.
They were subjected to “psychological torture,” including mock executions while blindfolded, Engel said.
The first reports that Engel and his colleagues had gone missing appear to have emerged in the Turkish media Sunday, and those reports subsequently made their way onto Twitter and Internet news portals.
The gossip and news site Gawker reported Monday that NBC News was asking other news organizations to delay reporting the abduction.
Gawker editor John Cook said he adhered to the blackout until Monday afternoon but decided to report the news of his abduction after it began to snowball online, especially in smaller or non-American-mainstream outlets.
“This was a situation where the information was freely available,” Cook wrote. “… It was out.”
Cook cited the 2008 abduction of New York Times reporter David Rohde, which the newspaper successfully kept out of the news for seven months before Rohde and a local reporter fled their captors.
The New York Times specifically told him that Rohde would be harmed if news of his kidnapping were reported, Cook said.
“There was nothing approaching that level of specificity or argumentation here,” Cook wrote of his off-the-record discussions with NBC News about Engel. “I would not have written a post if someone had told me that there was a reasonable or even remote suspicion that anything specific would happen if I wrote the post.”
While news organizations say they have a responsibility to protect their employees in such situations, some media ethics experts take a dim view of concerted editorial action by leading media outlets such as the news blackout around Engel’s abduction.
“Frankly, I am unnerved by the idea that all of the world’s most powerful media could get together and say, ‘This information is not going to go out,’” said Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert and a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute in Florida.
Such information blockades represent a perversion of the “core values of journalism,” she said.
With the increasing influence of social networking sites like Twitter on the news media, such blackouts are more difficult to maintain for extended periods of time than they were at the time of Rohde’s abduction four years ago, McBride added.
“I don’t even think it’s doable anymore, and I think that is a good thing,” she said.
The executive whose network participated in the blackout called such parsing of media ethics a “very eggheaded and ivory tower conversation to have” when talking “about human lives that hang in the balance.”
“Our job is to put news out, not to sit on news,” the executive told RIA Novosti. “But I’m not sure what value the world gets knowing that someone who’s been kidnapped is in grave danger—and, frankly, in graver danger because the world now knows that they’ve been kidnapped.”