Policies on blackout requests

In Canada, there is no blanket policy for dealing with blackout requests in hostage takings. It is up to each individual news outlet to decide whether or not to honour a news embargo. For the most part, blackouts are assessed on a case-by-case basis.

The Canadian Press Stylebook offers writers and editors a broad guideline for covering abductions in a section entitled “Terrorism, hostage-takings.” They begin with the premise that “no news story is worth someone’s life.” Journalists are urged to approach every hostage situation with that principle in mind. In a 2009 interview with the Canadian Association of JournalistsCP Editor-in-Chief Scott White said he addresses blackout requests on an “individual basis.” The CAJ survey continued that “first and foremost they [CP] ask the requesting party for a reason why CP should not report and on what does the requesting party base their reasoning.”Stephen Northfield elaborates:

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 Patrick Worsnip, Reuters chief correspondent on the United Nations beat, wrote in an email that he and his colleagues are generally “hostile to media blackouts of any kind.” He added:

“We don’t accept the argument that the safety of kidnap victims is imperiled by their names being published. If we did accept such an argument, there would be no end to it, since a huge number of people in all sorts of situations could advance a similar argument.”

John Cruickshank, publisher of The Toronto Star and formerly of the CBC, said that when calculating the potential for harm, not much can trump a life.

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Robert Hurst, president of CTV, told the Canadian Association of Journalists his news organization operates under the principle that their actions in news-gathering and reporting should never “endanger human life.”

The CBC comes closest to having a comprehensive policy on blackout requests in hostage situations. Their “Guidelines on Covering Kidnapping and Hostage Situations” puts forward two major principles to consider when confronted with an embargo request.

1) What is our journalistic purpose in covering a kidnapping?
2) What, if anything, can we do to minimize harm?

The Internet further complicates the issue. With information around the globe only a mouse click away, some journalists argue that the blackout dilemma is obsolete. Mary Agnes Welch, president of the Canadian Association of Journaliststold J-Source she thinks the “to embargo or not to embargo” debate is irrelevant if the abductions occur “in a place where there is a critical mass of citizen journalists and Twitterers.”

CBC reporter Paul Hunter describes the major ethical considerations involved in media blackouts of abductions. This is also summarized below.

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Arguments for a blackout:

  • Kidnappers usually aren’t aware of who they’ve abducted. If they discover through the media that they have captured a “big fish,” they may increase their demands, making negotiations more challenging.
  • Kidnappers could get spooked by media coverage and react violently.
  • Publicity could lead to increased demands.
  • Publishing could give abductors a platform on which they can broadcast their demands. This is why news organizations are generally very hesitant about publishing specific threats or demands from the kidnappers.

Arguments against a blackout:

  • It is impossible to determine to what extent blackouts affect the outcome of abductions.
  • The public have a right to know information in the public interest.
  • Blackouts can breed distrust of the media.

Next: A brief history of blackouts

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