Not worth a life, but...
A CAJ ethics report on news blackouts has spotlighted mixed feelings about the idea and practice of holding back information about kidnappings. But, as Christine Dobby reports, the report offers guidance on factors to consider when a blackout request comes along.
There may be general agreement that “no story is worth a human life,” but news executives surveyed for a recent report are hesitant to agree to requests for news blackouts on abductions and hostage-takings unless clear justification is offered.
The Ethics Advisory Committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists convened the panel in the wake of Mellissa Fung's 2008 kidnapping with a mandate to consider when and under what circumstances media outlets should consent to news blackouts. The panel contacted senior journalists at leading news organizations and produced a report that identifies key ethical issues and provides a list of suggested questions to consider when entertaining blackout requests.
Tom Walters, former CTV news director, reflected on the notion that news blackouts interfere with the key journalistic value that information of public interest be conveyed to the public. The problem with requests to suppress information, Walters said, is that “[They] require us to accept a generally unacceptable demand: that we choose information not on the basis of editorial judgment, but in order to engineer a particular outcome.”
Current CTV news director, Margo Harper, shared the same apprehension about wholesale agreement to blackout requests. She told the panel, “We must be satisfied that the act of reporting will materially endanger the individual.”
Other sources wondered whether they would agree to a blackout like that given in the Mellissa Fung case again and insisted that the party seeking a blackout must provide a clear justification as to why the issue should not be reported. (The CBC has its own guidelines on covering kidnapping and hostage situations, which balance the competing concerns of the possible harm in reporting versus the journalistic value of sharing information.)
The CAJ panel, which was chaired by Ethan Faber, managing editor of CTV British Columbia, also considered whether blackout requests involving journalists were more likely to be granted than those involving people in other professions. The panel’s sources agreed that there should be no difference in how the requests are considered; however, a perceived double standard in favour of journalists likely exists due to the contacts newsroom managers have with other decision makers in the industry and their ability to reach key people and plead their case quickly.
The report concludes with a list of findings and notes that making the wrong decision on whether or not to grant a news blackout has great potential for harm to both the individuals involved, as well as the public interest and credibility of the news media in general.
According to the report, a one-size-fits-all policy cannot adequately address all cases, but the list of suggested questions should help structure the debate when news organizations are faced with future blackout requests:
- Have strong, specific reasons been provided to support the blackout request? Are those reasons rooted in specifics of this case or a general assumption that reporting in this type of instance may result in harm? Is that assumption supported by evidence?
- Are we convinced that our actions in reporting the kidnapping could lead to the death of the victim, or dramatically compound the negotiations potentially leading to the release?
- Is the requested blackout short-term or time-limited? If not, will the request be reviewed after a defined period of time?
- Is a special favour being asked to protect a journalist? If so, would we agree to this request if the person being protected were not a journalist?
- Have senior people within our organization as well as news people in the field been consulted about the request, and their various views taken into account?
- Have we weighed the potential harm to individuals against the potential of harm to the public interest and harm to the credibility of the news media?
- How will our response to this request compare to our responses to similar situations in the past, and how may we justify a perceived inconsistency with such precedents?
- Are we committed to making full disclosure about the circumstances of the blackout once the perceived impediment to reporting has passed?
Along with Faber, members of the panel were Sadia Zaman, executive director of Women in Film and Television-Toronto, and Ivor Shapiro, associate professor at Ryerson University's School of Journalism and chair of the CAJ's ethics advisory committee.
See also: a chart summarizing the news media’s response in over forty cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking and links to further reading included at the end of the report.
Christine Dobby is a reformed lawyer and current master's of journalism student at Ryerson University.