Should reporters suppress info following a kidnapping?

Media criticism.
Jan. 10 2006 7:12 PM

The Carroll Kidnapping

What information should reporters suppress? And for how long?

Editor & Publisher reports today on the successful efforts made by the Christian Science Monitor to impose a weekend-long "news blackout" on coverage of the abduction of its Baghdad stringer, Jill Carroll. Unknown gunmen took Carroll and murdered her translator, Allan Enwiyah, on Saturday morning in Baghdad.

Carroll's name didn't appear in the print editions of the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, or the New York Times, until today, Tuesday, Jan. 10. The Associated Press story naming her moved at 11:10 p.m., Monday, Jan. 9, according to Nexis.

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"I was surprised and very heartened that people were so willing to help us," Monitor Managing Editor Marshall Ingwerson tells E&P.

A "journalists' group in Baghdad" also joined the blackout appeal, according to the AP story. "The request was made to give authorities an opportunity to try to resolve the incident during the early hours after the abduction," reports the AP. The New York Times and Washington Post also acknowledged that they'd suppressed Carroll's name. The Los Angeles Times did not.

Such blackouts aren't uncommon, writes Washington Post Baghdad Bureau Chief Ellen Knickmeyer in her coverage. "News organizations and authorities often attempt such news blackouts to give investigators, mediators and others a better chance of resolving a kidnapping in its early hours."

Nobody can criticize news organizations for agreeing among themselves to embargo kidnapping information for few hours if it might save a colleague's life. And, obviously, the rules for covering kidnappings should be different in a war zone such as Iraq—where 36 reporters have been snatched since April 2004—than stateside. According to the Los Angeles Times, six of the kidnapped journalists have been killed. (These numbers pale in comparison with the Iraqi kidnapping count. The Post reports that 30 Iraqis are abducted each day.)

I know it's easy for me to meditate about this topic from the safety of my Washington office while journalists labor under the threat of death every day in Iraq. But the questions remain. If the press should spike news to help a colleague, how long an interval is decent? Should it be 48 hours, as in Carroll's case? Until the local press reports the story? Until the abducted person's employer confirms the news? Until the U.S. Embassy does? Or until the kidnappers make their announcement on the Web? I don't have any easy answers, just easy questions.

It's also not clear to me whether the same set of reportorial rules currently applies to the kidnapping coverage of foreign journalists and to non-journalist foreigners in Iraq. It would be very bad news—pardon the pun—if reporters are more vigilant in protecting their own than they are non-journalists.

How far will publications go to protect their reporters? After the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, the Journal asked news organizations not to report that Pearl's parents were Israelis, according to the Forward.

"By and large, media outlets complied with the Journal's request," the Forward reports, "except when CNN International aired comments by a security analyst saying that Pearl's parents were Israeli. CNN pulled the clip after its first airing, and did not feature it in its reporting while Pearl was still believed to be alive."

Pearl's widow, Mariane Pearl, blames Washington Post stringer Kamran Khan for her husband's death. She equates Khan's Pakistani News story, which quoted Pakistani officials saying her husband was a Jew, with a death sentence.

Returning to the Carroll case, starving her kidnappers of information might save her life. However, that's also true in the case of a domestic abduction, and not many reporters would withhold the news of a kidnapping for very long based on that rationale. No group has yet claimed credit for taking Carroll, leaving the abduction's purpose murky. It could be that she was seized by vicious opportunists, who observed her waiting for an appointment in a tough part of the Baghdad without any bodyguards.

If Carroll's grabbing was a pure ransom play, planned meticulously in advance, the silence may buy time for a transfer of money or for a rescue. If the intent of the kidnappers was pure terror, the blackout may have convinced the insurgents that they got a nobody who won't produce much in the way of publicity for them, prompting them to release her. On the other hand, it's possible the kidnappers have gamed out all these variables in advance and may be content to wait until the Western press confirms Carroll's identity before issuing—or even formulating—their demands. Those demands could, of course, escalate if the kidnappers were to suddenly make a connection between Carroll and the "Christian" Science Monitor.

Sitting on newsworthy information is an unnatural act for most reporters—some would say unprofessional—and nobody can argue that the kidnapping of Jill Carroll isn't newsworthy. By effortlessly banding together across several time zones to squelch information in the name of protecting one colleague in Baghdad, American journalists placed themselves in a hypocritical position. Didn't their leading newspaper just publish national-security information over the objections of a White House that protests that the story endangers the lives of millions of Americans?

Addendum:Editor & Publisher appears to have been the publication that broke the blackout story in a Jan. 9, 3:05 p.m.,  piece by Joe Strupp. In a Jan. 10 evening piece  by Strupp, Military Reporters and Editor President Sig Christenson expresses his dismay over the blackout. E&P Editor Greg Mitchell also weighs in, providing a ticktock of the blackout.

Also, three newspaper editors explain kidnapping coverage in this follow-up.

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What would you do? Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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