Consider the following scenario: a 25-year-old woman is crossing a busy intersection when a driver, distracted by a buzzing cellphone, runs the red light and hits her. The woman is declared dead on the scene.A journalist sitting in a news organization’s radio room overhears the police transmission of the accident and starts writing a web story. He calls the police for comment, but instead of giving the reporter more information, the officer requests an embargo on the name of the deceased. “Her relatives haven’t been contacted yet,” the officer says.What should the journalist do?In situations like these, news outlets usually honour embargo (also called blackout) requests. The general consensus among journalists is that a victim’s family should not learn about the death of a loved one through a news report. Their best interest trumps the public’s right to know. In 2009, a panel on news blackouts organized by the Canadian Association of Journalists agreed. Panelists appeared satisfied that examples like the one detailed above were non-controversial.But what about situations in which victims’ lives hang in the balance? And what if, rather than requesting a blackout on certain details, the media is asked to keep quiet on the whole story?These are often the factors to consider in cases of kidnappings and hostage takings, especially when they take place in foreign countries and are led by extremist groups. And though it may be hard to believe, these types of abductions are more common than people think. According to theCBC’s “Guidelines on Covering Kidnapping and Hostage Situations,” the number of Canadians being kidnapped abroad is rising exponentially. The reason is purely economical: abductions are a “lucrative industry.”Despite their increasing frequency, abductions are not becoming easier to cover. This was made evident by the kidnappings Fung and Fowler.Media blackouts: in theory and in practiceThe Oxford English Dictionary defines news blackouts as an “official suppression of information.” In practice, this means the media deliberately withholds information from the public. In hostage takings, such news embargoes can be requested by the police, the government, the victim’s family or a news organization.And as Robert Fowler noted during an interview, everyone’s motives for making these requests are different:[youtube_sc url=”http://youtu.be/6CODhzWo-bQ”]
In order for a blackout to work, it requires the cooperation of all or almost all media outlets. And as Fowler explains, global cooperation can be extremely difficult to secure:
Media blackouts are fraught with ethical challenges. Journalists have a responsibility to report the news. Indeed, information-sharing is one of the most basic principles of journalism. But news organizations are also dedicated to minimizing harm: they have a duty to ensure the words they publish will not endanger another person’s life. This is especially relevant in hostage situations, when publicity can put the victim in even greater danger.
Stephen Northfield was the foreign editor at The Globe and Mail when both Robert Fowler and Mellissa Fung were abducted. He discusses the challenges of handling blackout requests:
[youtube_sc url=”http://youtu.be/qkPrzEKDAUY”]When a news organization is presented with a blackout request, they have a lot to consider.
Next: So do they have some kind of news policy at their disposal to help guide them?