7. Decision-making point

The decision point is that critical moment in a newsroom when editors are forced to carefully weigh the ethical considerations around publishing a story. In abduction cases, this thought process has to happen quickly, given the speed at which information can now travel.

Paul Hunter describes how, in Mellissa Fung’s case, the decision to remain quiet happened almost instantaneously. The Prime Minister’s Office, made aware of her kidnapping, had asked news organizations to remain quiet, and they complied.

But in Robert Fowler’s case, Canadian media did not have the luxury of time. As often happens with the international 24-hour news cycle, word was already out: French news agency Agence France Press had broken news of the kidnapping. The article was on the wires.

Even though they effectively woke up to the news of Fowler’s kidnapping, Canadian editors still had to carefully plan their next steps. The public was now aware of this abduction – was their journalistic duty to continue building on this story? Or was the responsible course of action to stifle any additional detail? In an instance such as this, it was not easy to determine how to minimize harm. Northfield describes looking at the situation through the eyes of the captors:

Hunter also emphasizes the importance of not underestimating the perpetrators:

For Hunter, the handling of Robert Fowler’s abduction was also complicated by the friendship the two shared. He describes his conversations with CBC colleagues:

Cruickshank describes how the kidnapper’s motivations for kidnapping Fowler were also important to weigh. Pressures (or lack thereof) from government authorities was also a consideration in the decision to embargo or publish Fowler’s story:

So in a situation where the captors knew the identity and power of their hostage and the information had already been made public, what were Canadian news organizations to do in order to minimize harm?

Next: Epilogue