Hostage situation raises question of withholding information

The EditorsWeblog considers the question of when news media might be right to withhold information from their audiences. The case in question concerned a New York Times reporter, his driver and another reporter who were taken hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The blog reports that “Thanks to the efforts of New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, for seven months news of the kidnapping did not enter the public domain. Fellow newspapers understood that lives were at stake and nobody was willing to compromise Rohde’s safety by breaking the media silence. In addition, the Times attempted to keep information about the kidnappings from their reporter’s page on Wikipedia:

Within days of [David] Rohde’s abduction, attempts were made to edit Rohde’s Wiki page with the news and so it was that a virtual tug of war began between the NYT and the online encyclopaedia. For seven months, unidentified individuals tried to update Rohde’s entry with the information only to have this erased. Eventually, a joint effort involving Catherine J. Mathis, chief spokeswoman for the NYT and Wikipedia CEO Jimmy Wales, among others, led to a temporary freeze of Rohde’s page, making editing impossible. No sooner was the function reinstated that new efforts were made to add the details.

The blog asks an important question about the Times’ efforts:

The media blackout that took place is probably to be credited for delivering Rohde to safety, but what does it say about the media’s lack of partiality? Keller and his colleagues thought long and hard about their options, ultimately concluding that a hostage as currency is worth less without the exposure. Yet, did this decision represent a disservice to other reporters in the region? Were their lives at risk because of NYT’s choice to look after one man? A reasoned answer is that if news organisations were able to keep the news from spreading, they were very likely able to inform colleagues on a need-to-know basis, particularly if any employees were operating in the same area without risking any leaks.

Of more concern is the inconsistency of news outlets when it comes to dealing with kidnappings when a terrorist organisation is at the helm, as the Poynter Institute’s Bob Steele points out: “Would a news organization apply different standards in the case of a government diplomat or a business executive or a tourist than they would one of their own?” asks the ethics instructor. Invariably the answer seems to be yes, insofar as non-media hostages make the headlines, although often with the support of the relevant families. In this particular case, the NYT made the best decision it was able to under the circumstances and perhaps saved their man in the process. After all, a human life is always worth more than a newspaper’s quest to remain impartial.

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