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Media ethics


On Sunday, Billl Roggio reported the kidnapping of New York Times correspondent Stephen Farrell, who was freed today by a NATO operation. Farrell's driver/interpreter Sultan Munadi was also kidnapped, and lost his life in the raid along with a British soldier. Editors at the Times had been trying to keep the abduction quiet, as they did for 7 months in the case of reporter David Rohde.

Roggio received several private and public appeals in to remove the news. The reason was often presented as a conclusion that "should be self-evident to any apparently decent human being:" a report could get the hostages killed. But this charge, and the ethical issues involved in reporting the kidnapping, merit a closer examination.

The case made by those asking to keep the story quiet revolves around the idea that the information would endanger the reporter, presumably by making his paid release or public execution more valuable. The quick justification given by the Times in the previous case of Rohdes' abduction was the following:

Times executives believed that publicity would raise Mr. Rohde’s value to his captors as a bargaining chip and reduce his chance of survival.

This is not an unreasonable assumption, but it begs the question: did publicity in the following cases also raise the value of and endanger these hostages?

A partial list of reports by The New York Times on kidnappings:

November 15, 2002: NYT: Red Cross workers kidnapped in Chechnya

September 17, 2004, NYT: Insurgents kidnap American and British civilians in Iraq

January 18, 2005: NYT: Catholic Archbishop of Mosul kidnapped in Iraq

May 17, 2005: NYT: CARE worker kidnapped in Kabul

December 29, 2005: NYT: German Family Kidnapped by Yemeni Tribe

January 27, 2008: NYT: NGO worker kidnapped in Afghanistan

August 29, 2009, Reuters in the NYT: Foreign Aid Workers kidnapped in Darfur

20 hours ago: NYT: Greek national kidnapped in Pakistan

This list could go on, of course. None of Roggio's critics have adequately addressed this question of a double standard, and many simply ignored it as they pressed their case.

The media, including The New York Times, does often hold back or delay information for important reasons, ranging from endangerment of a life to national security interest. But the justifications behind such appeals typically must be specific and compelling to even get an editor's attention, much less achieve an assent not to run a story. A classic example would be revelation of the specifics of an impending military operation, such as yesterday's hostage rescue, that will endanger innocent lives.

In the absence of any information on how the publicity specifically endangered their man, I'm not sure the Times met this criteria. An inescapable conclusion is that the Times' blackout was successful in the case of Rohdes, and probably would have been in the case of Farrell, because the paper wields such massive influence in the media world. Additionally, other outlets could probably imagine wanting quid pro quo in the event one of their reporters is taken.

While a big part of me can't fault the Times for trying to protect their employee, a larger part sees this as a strain of nepotism. Under the comments to Roggio's original post, Foreign Policy's Thomas Ricks and photojournalist Danfung Dennis advocated a "do no harm" standard of reporting. Their points are generally reasonable and admirable. But if that standard is followed to the letter, it would seem to require a wholesale reformation of media policy on reporting kidnappings when everyone - soldiers, NGO employees, businessmen, tourists, and even journalists - are taken.

Of course, the slope involved in citing non-specific harm to selectively withold reporting gets even more slippery when you consider the symbiotic relationship of journalism and terrorism. Where to draw the line?

The fact is, though legacy media stalwarts lament the weakening of media standards in the digital age, those standards have been and remain subjective and variable within the mainstream media itself. In a previous post, I mentioned that I made a decision to disguise the identities of Iraqi cops when I took their picture in a then-chaotic Anbar. The main reason, beyond the comfort of the injured, was that insurgents were waging a terrible campaign of retribution against anyone caught working with Americans. Cops and their families were targeted for blood-chilling means of torture and execution. Insurgents know how to google, and regularly use the internet to acquire targeting information. But after my first visit to Fallujah, I noticed that few in the regular media disguised identities of locals, even as effective intimidation campaigns still raged. Iraqi cops were often ID'ed by the press, visually or otherwise.

In another specific case I witnessed, a group of Marines fed information and sources to a well-known reporter about corruption in the Iraqi Security Forces, in a bid to use the media to unseat entrenched, corrupt Iraqi officers. When the story was published, a Marine responsible for the arrangement reacted with shock and anger after the reporter named several Iraqi government sources on the record. This had violated an understanding he thought he'd achieved with the writer, and in his words, made the named Iraqis "dead men."

I could go on. My point is not to engage in tit-for-tat or blame the Times for the sins of specific reporters or the media in general. But suffice it to say, the general entity known as the "media" enforces shifting ethical protocol while covering a range of stories, and there is greater variation than many editors might casually admit. This lack of uniform, accountable standards buttresses the idea that reporting is an an activity or job, not a profession. And it makes decisions about when to report or cover-up a kidnapping a little more difficult than some with relationships in the incestuous circle of war analysts, reporters, and editors care to acknowledge.

I probably wouldn't have handled the recent kidnapping information exactly how Roggio did, but his decision applied his ethical standards in a consistent fashion. Succinctly stated, the argument goes that kidnappings are news in the absence of a compelling, specific reason to avoid reporting them, and applied influence by media outlets that can hurt or help you does not change that maxim. It's not a bad argument.

UPDATE: This post by Andrew Exum is a perfect example of addressing the issue without actually ... addressing the issue (to spell it out: why reporting some kidnappings are so self-evidently verboten and dangerous, while others are fair game). While I could be potentially convinced toward a position not to report, and may have offered to delay the report myself, failing to specifically address the double standard is a rather frustrating debate tactic as Exum advances his position.

In contrast, this post at Danger Room asks the salient question.