A Massive ‘Press Blackout’ for a Massive Press Outlet

Calling the six months of unanimous news media silence on New York Times reporter David Rohde‘s kidnapping “the most amazing press blackout on a major event that I have ever seen,” Greg Mitchell (Editor & Publisher, 6/23/09) now wonders

if a great debate will break out over media ethics in not reporting a story involving one of their own when they so eagerly rush out piece about nearly everything else. I imagine some may claim that the blackout would not have held if a smaller paper, not the mighty New York Times, had been involved. Or is saving this life (actually two, there was a local reporter also snatched) self-evidently justification enough?

Bob Steele, the Poynter media ethicist, summed it up well for [E&P‘s Joe] Strupp this weekend: “News organizations are balancing competing obligations if a journalist is kidnapped or detained. The primary obligation to the public is to report accurately and timely on meaningful events. If you have a journalist who is detained or kidnapped, that will generally reach the level of newsworthiness. News organizations also have an equal obligation to minimize harm. That means showing care and caution to not further endanger someone whose life may be in jeopardy. These are competing obligations and loyalties.”

High ideals to be sure, but Steele comes back to what may be the overriding realistic factor here: “There is also a matter of fairness and consistency. Would a news organization apply different standards in the case of a government diplomat or a business executive or a tourist than they would one of their own?”