All Is Quiet On The Western Front: Media Blackouts vs. Public Awareness

30 Nov

Just wrote this as a paper, but it’s something we can talk about here as well. Where do you stand in terms of media blackouts?

When CBC journalist Melissa Fung was kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2008, news publications in Canada did not publish information about her abduction to ensure her safety. Four weeks after she was captured, she was released. In that same year another Canadian journalist was abducted. Robert Fowler was taken hostage in Niger for 130 days, but in this case, media chose to report on his situation. Fowler believed that the intense media coverage had a serious impact on the length of his time in captivity.

Most news organizations see media blackouts as a slippery slope. If we ban the coverage of journalist kidnappings, isn’t it only fair to ban coverage of non-journalist abductions? What are the limits of public access to sensitive information? Let’s look at both sides of the coin.

Blackouts reduce the value of public awareness

In the case of Melissa Fung, there was criticism on the part of senior journalists and news organizations regarding the decision to withhold information from the public. The criticism centred on the belief that the nature of news is to report everything that happens rather than suppress it. Sensitive topics must be covered because it is more important for the public to be made aware than it is to hide things from them.

And what about kidnapped civilians? In cases of missing or abducted persons, media coverage is extremely extensive, regardless of their condition. Je Yell Kim, a Canadian man, for example, was held in North Korea. His family kept this a secret for two months until the Star published an article about him. The Kim’s daughter feared the media coverage would put his life in danger but the paper refused to refrain from publishing on account of the story being of public interest. Although Kim was released unscathed, it brought forth an important consideration of what is more important, the value of public knowledge or human life.

In terms of the technological climate, can news be kept secret? Even if Canadian media did not report on a journalist kidnapping, who says a Canadian could not access this information via the Internet? A ban on reporting in Canada does not necessarily mean a ban worldwide. On this topic, John Cruikshank, the head of CBC at the time of Fung’s kidnapping, has said: “It’s hard for us, being who we are, to maintain a blackout once there has been light.” If a story hits the desk of a journalist right after it happens, they feel obligated to report on it. It’s tough telling journalists not to cover a story if they already know about the situation.

Perhaps a media outlets fear they may proceed with a blackout while other stations do not thus keeping them from reporting an important story. It’s hard to get all Canadian news stations to commit to media blackouts so when one sheds light on a particular situation; the others are obligated to do the same.

With respect to Fowler’s kidnapping, Globe and Mail’s foreign editor Stephen Northfield did not deem a media blackout necessary because the stories written did not contain new information for the abductors. This was reason enough to bring the circumstances into the public sphere.

Media bans, a necessity

It’s hard to tell whether or not a media blackout can keep captives alive or shorten their captivity, but based on the testimony of those who have survived hostage situations, a ban or a lack thereof does make a difference. Robert Fowler strongly believes the media coverage had a direct influence on the length of his captivity. “Everything that was said, and indeed not said, had an impact,” he said. His situation was covered right from the beginning up until his release.

Why it is so important to enforce a blackout especially on captured journalists is because hostage takers know the more important the abducted, the higher the ransom, and the more attention brought to their organization. This means more motivation to keep a person captive for publicity’s sake. Fowler asserts that although his Al Qaeda kidnappers were very primitive in some ways, they were extremely technologically savvy and thus aware of what was being said about Fowler. “Anything could inflame or excite them,” he said. “When the media hyped my CV, the price went up.”

Fowler draws a clear connection between the actions of his kidnappers and what was published about him. Even if it’s information that exists already, as previously argued, it gives abductors reason to maintain a hostage situation, or harm hostages in exchange for increased media hype. Even coverage of his release, Fowler said, put him in danger. Other gangs in that region of Niger, upon hearing the news, may have been interested in transferring him into their custody, he said.

In 2004, two inmates in Arizona held a prison guard tower hostage for 15 days. Although the media was aware of the details surrounding this situation, they remained silent on certain aspects. In this circumstance, the purpose of the blackout was to assist authorities in negotiation with the inmates and to ensure no one was harmed. The inmates ended up surrendering without injuring the prison guards.

Journalists to withholding certain details does go against ethics standards of news organizations, but bending the rules in cases such as this one can save lives. A partial blackout is, however, problematic because news consumers do not like to know just half of the story. As Beth DeFalco of the Associated Press, one of the journalists covering this event, puts it: “I think the readers had a lot of questions about what was going on. Not knowing what was going on in the tower made them think the worst was happening.” Is it worth it to give the public partial news, or is it more beneficial to keep them from panicking? Creating worry may be okay when compromising between media ethics and standards and general morality.

Given there is a way to report partially on a situation, to argue that once a story breaks there cannot be limits, doesn’t stand its ground. When Robert Fowler was kidnapped, the storm of reporting that took place could have at least been reduced. Fowler even said that although he is an advocate for complete blackouts, he understands that this is not always plausible.  In those cases, the bombardment of media reporting based on unconfirmed information should be monitored and reduced greatly.

In reality

There is no clear solution to the media blackout dilemma, but based on the accounts of Fung and Fowler and the hostage situation in Arizona, it seems like blackouts do more good than damage.

After Fung and Fowler’s abductions, The Star has created a policy to determine whether or not to apply a media ban. “In certain cases involving kidnapping, hostage taking and/or terrorism, when publication could endanger someone’s life, the Star must put the victim’s safety first.” News sources such as CBC and CTV do say that they weigh the pros and cons of media coverage but there are no set standards in place. The Globe and Mail’s policy, for example, is to publish unless there is a rare circumstance involving the direct correlation between harm and publication. A definition of said circumstance has not been determined.

Media blackouts appear to be necessary in rare cases, but in others, the real issue is how much information should be given to the public? Although this is never arbitrary, there can be guidelines in place. The Star’s policy is a seemingly reasonable standard to follow. It has at least put the wheels in motion for creating limits to publication for the sake of safety.

In dire situations, life must essentially supersede public interest.

“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.” –Thomas Jefferson

With notes from:

The Toronto Star, CBC, Torontoist and Journal of Mass Media Ethics

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