After James Foley: News leaders divided on how to handle kidnapped reporters

Split on full display at Columbia Journalism School panel discussion

The murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff ignited fierce debate over how to react when a reporter is kidnapped. Joel Simon, head of the Committee to Protect Journalists, argued in CJR last week that it was time to end what had essentially been standard practice of instituting media blackouts of such abductions. He writes: 

The best course of action would be for media organizations routinely to report the news of a journalist’s kidnapping in a straightforward unemotional way, omitting, for example, demands from the kidnappers and indicating in clear language when they are withholding certain information at the request of family members or editors. Of course, it would be a simple matter for the kidnappers to record their demands on a hostage video and post it online, and those who are interested in the information will find it. But if the mainstream media does not actively report on it, it is less likely to generate the kind of public pressure and visibility that complicate hostage negotiations.

But the lion’s share of news organizations have yet to agree on the best media strategy — silence or publicity — to help bring abducted reporters home. The lack of agreement was evident at a discussion Tuesday night at the Columbia Journalism School, as panelists at the event, “After Foley,” described to a packed crowd of more than 200 the growing perils of reporting from war zones.

“[Blackouts] are very controversial — I think they were a well-intentioned effort to somehow solve these cases — but they haven’t worked,” said David Rohde, a Reuters investigative reporter who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2008. The then-New York Times correspondent escaped after seven months of Taliban captivity. “I’m also not sure that publicity would solve these cases, either,” he said.

The media remained silent when Sotloff was kidnapped in August 2013, and Foley’s family and then-employer, GlobalPost, lobbied for his release only intermittently after his capture in November 2012. Phil Balboni, who helped direct the search for Foley as GlobalPost’s chief executive, pushed back on the notion that launching a proactive media campaign would have altered the journalists’ fate.

“We always felt that it was safer not to,” Balboni said, adding that GlobalPost spent millions in its search for Foley, a freelance contributor. “The most important mission you have is to bring your reporter home safely, and anything that can detract from that is ultimately not a positive.” 

Media silence holds the potential to ease negotiations between captors and captives’ home countries — that is, if governments agree to negotiate. But Washington’s official stance against such discussions renders blackouts effectively useless for kidnapped Americans, said Rukmini Callimachi, a New York Times correspondent. In July, Callimachi reported that European governments had quietly paid more than $125 million in ransoms to Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates since 2008.

“Our citizens are now being doomed by the policy of what Europe does,” Callimachi said. “I’ve yet to see an American official stand up and actually name the European countries that do this.”

Perhaps the most glaring difficulty for news organizations is a dearth of resources at all levels of conflict coverage. The speakers on Tuesday advocated for increased training, insurance, and infrastructure for war reporters, a growing portion of whom are underpaid freelancers. But such support doesn’t come cheap. And if journalists fall victim to kidnapping, Rohde said, the only proven solution is also an inconvenient one.

“The one thing that resolves these cases is cold, hard cash,” he said.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: , , ,