News Held Captive

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Is there a double standard in coverage of kidnappings?

Its always good news when a hostage is released.

Journalists, in particular, must breathe a collective sigh of relief whenever one of their own is freed from captivity in one of the worlds hot spots.

Just last week, we learned that American journalist David Rohde and his assistant were freed after being held for seven months by Taliban kidnappers in Pakistan.

In November of last year, CBC journalist Melissa Fung was released by kidnappers in Afghanistan, after a tense four weeks in captivity.

There is, however, a backstory to these events that raises potentially troubling questions regarding how the media covers its own.

In both the Rohde and Fung incidents, the media worked to suppress rather than report news about their employees abduction.

CBC went to great lengths to keep Fungs kidnapping a secret, to the point of asking other news organizations to participate in the embargo. Given the competitive nature of the media these days, its a surprise they all cooperated with CBCs request.

Rohdes employer also worked strenuously to keep Rohdes kidnapping out of the news, and received the cooperation of at least 40 major news organizations, including al-Jazeera.

And heres the reason, according to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post:

Keller consulted not only government experts but also other news organizations that had been through similar experiences, and there was a pretty firm consensus, he said, that you really amp up the danger when you go public. . . . It makes us cringe to sit on a news story, but in a life-or-death situation, the freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish.

Its the same with the CBC and the Fung abduction. Theres an interesting discussion about the subject over at J-Source, the Canadian Journalism Project where John Cruikshank, Publisher of CBC News, said:

In the interest of Mellissa's safety and that of other working journalists in the region, on the advice of security experts, we made the decision to ask media colleagues not to publish news of her abduction. All of the efforts made by the security experts were focused on Mellissas safe and timely releaseWe must put the safety of the victim ahead of our normal instinct for full transparency and disclosure.

In that same discussion, La Presse journalist Michle Ouimet, cut to the heart of this issue by writing: Journalists are the first to invoke the public's right to information, but they become awfully sensitive when it comes to one of their own.

If it can be demonstrated that withholding names of kidnap victims increases their chances of safe release, then I can get behind this idea. In fact, I have written in favour of not identifying mass killers, in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre.

However, any such policy should be applied universally and this is my concern with the kidnapped journalists. It looks as if media react differently when one of their own is abducted.

I dont remember hearing of cases where diplomats, aid workers, contract employees and others are not identified by name in news reports. Im not saying this hasnt happened only that I couldnt turn up any examples through various Google searches.

I will say this: it does appear that the media are applying a different standard to how they cover themselves.

If this is so, why? More precisely, why dont they apply this standard of non-identification to other kidnapping victims?

Id be interested in hearing from other journalists on this one.

As an aside, I dont mind restarting the debate I referenced above, about suppressing names of mass killers. I strongly believe that, if such killers went out in a shrug of anonymity, rather than a blaze of glory, they would be far less inclined to commit their savage acts. You can read more about my tracking of this subject here, here, here and here. Weve seen that media as many as 40 news organizations at once can suppress names when it suits them. Perhaps they should consider a new approach to this issue as well.

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