Media ethics

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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.

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17 Comments

  • Will says:

    “The reason was often presented as a conclusion that should be self-evident to any apparently decent human being…”
    Amen.

  • David Tate says:

    I have questioned the NYT’s decision since I learned about David Rohde back in February and it still doesn’t hold water.
    You do realize that Rohde’s interpreter is still in captivity – which begs the question as to why the NYTs disclosed Rohde’s escape, knowing an Afghan is still inn harm’s way?

  • Rational Enquirer says:

    You cite the Times’ rationale for not disclosing a reporter’s kidnapping to be the belief “that publicity would raise [the hostage’s value] to his captors as a bargaining chip and reduce his chance of survival.”
    I’m wondering about the validity of that assumption in the first place.
    Wouldn’t raising the hostage’s value to his captors, by means of publicity or whatever, actually INCREASE the hostage’s chances of survival? It seems at least arguable that the greater the potential ransom to be paid, the longer the hostage might be kept alive.

  • SteveL says:

    One aspect to this that I don’t see addressed, is what was the original source of your information? If it was background information from a government or even a NYT official, then shame on you. But if this is repackaging of reporting in foreign press (with value added as is your norm), then what is big deal?

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Will – your assent is ambiguous.
    David T – I did not know that, it does indeed add a rather unethical twist to the Times’ behavior.
    Rational – that is an interesting point.
    SteveL – the information was indeed out in the foreign press, which is a good point and changes things a little. That said, your comment does not address whether there is a double standard, and whether “shame” applies to the width and breadth of the media for publishing similar kidnapping stories about those without inside media connections.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    My source of information was initially from individuals in Afghanistan who were neither government officials nor NYT personnel. I received the information beginning on Saturday. Late that day I saw/heard of reports in the foreign press (DPA being the big one). The foreign press reports confirmed what my sources said (not that I needed the confirmation, the sources are solid.) I did not publish the information until late morning Sunday.

  • Martha says:

    Mr. Roggio,
    I stand behind you 100%.
    Thank-you.

  • Ben says:

    While fully agreeing that the Times’ behavior on this subject is highly self-serving, I can’t agree with publishing a kidnapped reporter’s identity as a means of retribution. Just because journalists are risking peoples’ lives needlessly doesn’t mean we need to be in the business of doing so.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Ben – That’s a respectable position, and you and I generally agree. Now the next two essential questions:
    1. Was it published as “retribution?”
    2. Did a report actually endanger the reporter and his terp? Specifically why and how?
    Regards.

  • FORAC says:

    Bill, I support you 100% in your decision.
    This career security manager has protected his share of SAPs and ACCMs…And I keep seeing them on the front page of the New York Times. Why is that?
    Pray tell: why is it kosher for NYT to leak classified information, then complain when a blogger refuses to keep something secret because they said so? Many of the leaks from the NYT were active, compartmentalized programs. This reporter? All over Google News. The reason THEY didn’t say anything, was because it was classified. What a novel idea.
    The Taliban and AQ don’t care if you’re liberal or conservative. If you’re American, you’re a target. I’m glad he got captured and I’m glad he got rescued. Now he can go back to the NYT and tell them that the war on terror is real. Serves him right.

  • NS Webstr says:

    Well, since a British soldier got killed to rescue him, I’m definitley not glad he got captured. If anything, he’ll probably write a book about it now.
    Bill did the right thing. It’s a no-brainer. He was reporting news from foreign press services. I’m understand the NY Times embargoing kidnapping stories on their own staff, but not everybody else. That’s their decision, but it’s an organizational decision – not a required mandate for all journalists.
    What I respect most is that there was not much editorial comment in Bill’s report. He didn’t do what the AP did – spend page upon page justifying and rationalizing their process on the Cpl. Bernard photo. He reported the news, and moved on. It was left to others to give attention to it.

  • Ben says:

    Bill –
    I apologize; “retribution” is a poor choice of words. Still, making the point that journalists shouldn’t publish information about kidnappings by publishing information about a kidnapping involving a journalist seems a bit harsh. As to whether publishing the report caused any direct harm to the reporter or his interpreter (God rest him), it didn’t seem to do so in this case — but isn’t it the general principle we’re concerned about? Both soldiers and journalists are worthy of whatever protection we can afford — and it would indeed be nice if the media realized that.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Ben – thanks, and understood. I will merely point out that, as mentioned in my post, standards have to be set for “do no harm” that are specific, consistent and reasonable.
    Some have made the assumption that reporting on a kidnapping (of a reporter, anyway) causes risk. I’m not 100% sure of that basic premise, much less the Times’ relatively broad rationale for it. Regards.

  • T Ruth says:

    ABOUT THE BASIC FACTS, did NYT also try to suppress the news of SULTAN MUNADI’S kidnapping or was it only of Farrell (because he’s British) and not Munadi, because the NYT thought he was an aide, so the same rigor may not be required?
    Washington Post reports that:
    “Munadi’s by-line appeared in the New York Times over many years. Yet in its own initial account of the raid, the newspaper described its veteran Afghan reporter as Farrell’s “aide”. ”
    Read on at
    //www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/10/AR2009091001968_2.html
    I realise that LWJ has also been referring to Mr Munadi, the unfortunate Afghan journalist, as Farrell’s driver/interpretor and he may also have been discharging those roles. How can one say anything to the Bills if the NYT itself misinforms! I pay my respects to the departed gentleman, his family, friends and colleagues. In the interest of public awarenes, i will be interested to hear what insurance cover the NYT maintained for Mr Munadi and Mr Farrell respectively? Also, was the request for privacy, influenced/instigated by any clause that NYT has with its insurers? What amount has NYT paid Mr Munadi’s family as compensation? If it has not yet when does it intend to do so and how much?

  • E4Mafia says:

    Tragic Poignant Irony
    Harvard on October 31, 1987.PBS’s Ethics in America series,episode”Under Orders, Under Fire.”

  • APW says:

    I concur with Bill A. 100%, with Bill R. about 50%; but agree absolutely not at all with the NYT.

  • Bangash says:

    what ever is controversial and can grab attention will be reported by newspapers, blogs, TV etc. Media is least concerned with national interest or lives at risk.

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