BOB: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, Brooke Gladstone is away this week, I’m Bob Garfield.
The ISIS video showing the beheading of another American journalist is authentic. The Islamic terror group posted.
Of continued concern to US officials is their belief the group is also holding two young american aid workers who went to Syria to do nothing more than help civilians caught in the middle of the strife.
We will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice because hell is where they will reside. (Biden)
The gruesome murders of kidnapped journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff have engendered, along with horror and sadness, serious questions about the way the media should cover such violence. When are news images, even if not graphic, simply too suggestive? When does even circumspect coverage of a sensational crime fulfill the goals of the perpetrators?
And there’s yet another ethical quandary, one created by the media themselves: is it ever right to black-out coverage of a kidnapping altogether? Such moratoria have become common, most notably the 2008 kidnapping in Afghanistan of New York Times reporter David Rhode. The Times asked other news organizations to be silent, and the media blackout held for seven months until his escape. Subsequent hostage-takings led to similar pacts of silence, a practice that found favor with the Committee to Protect Journalists.. But amid the recent epidemic of journalist abductions, the committee is having second thoughts. Executive Director Joel Simon says the media blackout strategy took shape after a flurry of kidnappings in Iraq and the murder of kidnapped American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002.
SIMON: Their goal all along was to inflict the max emotional damage through his execution and the sympathetic media coverage the emotional, orchestrated public campaign actually heightened their ability to achieve that goal.
GARFIELD: And, after that, in Afghanistan the kidnapping of an Italian journalist and his Afghan driver and fixer the kidnappers truly toyed with not only the emotions, but the lives of these men. Tell me about it.
SIMON: Well yes this was an absolutely horrible incident. The kidnappers which were Afghan Taliban executed the driver, they cut off his head and then they used the intensive media coverage to put pressure on the Italian government which in turn put pressure on the Afghan government to release Taliban prisoners, which they did. As a result, Italian reporter Daniel Mastrogiacomo was released and the Taliban went back to president Karzai of Afghanistan and demanded the release of additional prisoners for the afghan journalist when Karzai refused to do that they executed the Afghan fixer. This exploitation of the media to achieve their political objectives of both winning the release of these prisoners and damaging Karzai rattled journalists in the media community because it was so effective.
GARFIELD: So then the decision to not aid and abet terrorists and give them the very publicity they seek. How did you come in years past to subscribe the strategy of the blackout.
SIMON: To try to limit the ability of the kidnappers to use the media to achieve their political goals. And if there's a possibility of some negotiations and paying a ransom then trying to conduct a ransom negotiation in the glare of the media spotlight is difficult if not impossible. If you've the media banging at the door that just makes the crisis even more difficult.
GARFIELD: And how much conversation was there in your offices of suppressing news for media colleagues when you wouldn't do it for a political figure or some other private citizens.
SIMON: Most media organizations will say that they will apply blackouts in any circumstance whether the victim is a journalist or not. But the reality is it is journalists who know who to call when news breaks and it needs to be suppressed. If you are a media executive you have relationships with other media executives so it's much easier to ask for and get a blackout then it is for other folks. In most instances I've seen it's not a deliberate double standard. It's just a double standard that exists in practice.
GARFIELD: News organizations of course try to keep their distance from governments. But sometimes the request to tamp down coverage comes from the government. Can you give me some examples?
SIMON: Once the blackout coverage becomes acceptable governments utilize it. The Turkish government has demanded the Turkish media not report kidnapping of Turkish diplomats by ISIS in Mosul. And the British government has asked that the British media not report on the name of the hostage that ISIS showed at the end of the video in which they executed Steven Sotloff.
GARFIELD: Was that the tipping point for you, when governments began to dictate coverage to presumably independent media?
SIMON: There wasn't one single factor that caused me to change my opinion. But one thing that really affected me was the change of dynamic in Syria. At one point we had 30 journalists who were kidnapped. Most of those cases were blacked out. So you had a kidnapping epidemic that was simply not being covered. And the consequence was that there wasn't awareness about the growing risks to journalists and the fact that ISIS was actually hunting journalists to kidnap and it just wasn't clear to me what the benefit was in trying to secure the release of these journalists. Ultimately, the responsibility in the media is to report the news. Exceptions to that practice should be as rare as possible.
GARFIELD: You speak to families of these journalists. The stakes for them are obvious. Should their wishes be part of the decision making process? Should the issue of journalistic ethics trump the desire of the family to get their loved ones back alive?
SIMON: it's a really really difficult question. I think that if their is clear evidence that reporting specific information will further endanger a journalist who's been kidnapped, then obviously the family's wishes must prevail. But I think that in many instances there's just the sense that it's better not to report the news. And in those circumstances I think making the information public in an unemotional, just-the-facts way probably serves the broader purpose.
GARFIELD: I gather that you knew some of these journalists before they were abducted and yet you have come down ultimately to discourage the idea of non-reporting. That's a tough place to be.
SIMON: Yes. But I have a secondary responsibility which is to ensure that there's an awareness about risks the journalists face around the world. And I think one of the situations that caused me to change my view that they should be reporting on this, we should be making folks aware of what's happening and the blackout is impeding our ability to do that.
GARFILED: Alright. Joel, as always, thank you so much.
SIMON: Thank you.
GARFIELD: Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His post on the Columbia Journalism Review site about media blackouts is adapted from his forthcoming book: The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom.