Press Box

How To Cover a Kidnapping

It isn’t that easy.

The Baghdad foreign press corps rallied to the aid of Christian Science Monitor stringer Jill Carroll immediately upon learning that kidnappers had snatched her in the Baghdad neighborhood of Adil on Saturday, Jan. 7.

Washington Post Baghdad Bureau Chief Ellen Knickmeyer forwarded to her colleagues the e-mail from Monitor Managing Editor Marshall Ingwerson. In it he requested “off the record, that all media please honor a news blackout on the kidnapping of a freelance journalist earlier today pending further notice. We ask this out of respect to the journalist and the ongoing, intensive effort to free her.” [Emphasis added.]

Although the blackout pretty much held in the American press until the Monitor lifted it two days later, some Baghdad hands resisted. On the day of the kidnapping, John Fiegener of Fox News wrote the e-mail list to say the press couldn’t treat the Carroll story differently than other kidnappings, noting that the news had already hit the wires. The Agence France-Presse reporter e-mailed the same day, “The item has just come up on CNN. We can’t keep a blackout if CNN is running it.” The day after the kidnapping, NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro sent a measured e-mail to colleagues about her reluctance to play “news police” for very long.

The blackout prompted little discussion inside or outside the press if you factor out coverage in Editor & Publisherand Slate,despite the principles and precedents at stake.

The Monitor’s Ingwerson declines to discuss the blackout. “I’m not ready to engage in the debate in a way that would be useful to you,” he says. “I’m in the mode of not trying to amplify the story.”

The confusion and debate contained in the Baghdad e-mails prove that there is no orthodox, universally accepted method for reporting on Iraq abductions, whether they are of journalists or nonjournalists. “OK, please can you tell us exactly what we can say,” wrote one frustrated British journalist to the Baghdad list.

The Italian wire service ANSA, for which Carroll had worked, published her name in a kidnapping account on the day of her abduction. According to the iNoodle blog, Reporters Without Borders posted a story about the kidnapping of a female American journalist that morning. INoodle also linked to a UPI story, and an AP story from Saturday. Joe Strupp at Editor & Publisher discovered the Saturday AP story about Carroll on the USA Today Web site that was later deleted. The extreme difficulties of unpublishing a story caused the Monitor to lift its blackout request on Monday afternoon, as a spokesman told E&P the kidnapping story had appeared in 40 to 50 outlets abroad.

Were journalists guilty of treating a fellow reporter differently than they would a kidnapped nonreporter? Were there precedents for such an indefinite blackout? (Ingwerson assures me that he and his colleagues were “checking in frequently” to assess the Carroll situation.) Should the blackout have been observed even though CNN had covered the killing and the foreign press had already published news about it? Editors at the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times agreed to share their thoughts on the issues and their papers’ coverage—and noncoverage—of the Carroll abduction.

Washington Post Managing Editor Philip Bennett e-mailed to say the Post delayed the Carroll kidnapping news because the Monitor believed it would put the stringer’s life in jeopardy.

“Our experience with kidnappings in Iraq made this seem a reasonable request. It is of course extraordinary for us to delay publication of a newsworthy item or to withhold information about a crime, whether in Iraq or here. In this case, as in others, we tried to balance our responsibility to inform and the interest of protecting a human life. When the critical first period was over, we ran a story on the front page that also informed readers or our decision-making,” he writes.

“I don’t think this reflects a double standard. We have in some instances withheld information about non-journalist kidnap victims in Iraq at the request of family or investigators who persuaded us publication would endanger the victim. Many kidnappings in Iraq have not been announced in the press or become known to us until the kidnappers released a video or made a public statement. Jill Carroll’s case became known to journalists so quickly only because she was a journalist herself. This fact shouldn’t work against her.”

Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Doug Frantz responds, “Our policy is to print news, and any exception to that means that we must weigh each episode individually and try to make wise decisions. In the best world, those decisions are made in Los Angeles by senior editors, with advice from the reporters on the ground. Thankfully, we have not had to reach a judgment too often.

“Personally, if I have to err, I’d prefer to err on the side of caution in instances that pose a direct threat to someone’s life,” he continues. “There is no law that requires us to publish information. We make judgments every day, as you well know.”

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller writes to say that in addition to the Rules of Journalism, journalists should also be guided by common sense or humane impulses.

“Our default position is that we publish things. If the information is reliably sourced and of public interest, and if the presentation is fair and accurate and cogent—all those rather high hurdles policed by editors—we publish it. It sticks in our craw to keep interesting or important information to ourselves. Not publishing is the exception, and we need a good reason for it. But we will listen to an argument. If someone makes a plausible case that withholding information will save a life, we’ll listen. I suppose there are absolutists out there who would insist we say, ‘Screw it, not our responsibility.’ Most people who actually face decisions like that will tell you it’s not so simple,” Keller writes.

The Times agonized over the Carroll story, writes Keller. “For a time, anyway, the judgment was that publishing the information could conceivably jeopardize an effort to save a life. At the same time, the urgency of publishing was de minimus, in the sense that it was not exactly groundbreaking news that people get kidnapped in Iraq,” Keller continues.

“I think the request would—certainly ought to—get the same consideration whether the person abducted was a journalist, an aid worker, a contractor or a soldier, and whether the request came from the military or a family member. The nature of the grapevine in Baghdad is such that we are more likely to know, and sooner, if the victim is a journalist. And news organizations may be a little more sophisticated about quickly disseminating to other news organizations the case for silence. With NGOs and contractors, often we don’t hear about kidnappings until the victim has been released or killed. But if a military officer or the director of a charity calls me—or [Times reporter] Dexter [Filkins], or [Times reporter] John Burns—and makes a convincing case that publishing the identity of a kidnap victim could get them killed, I think we would treat that appeal with the same consideration we gave to the Christian Science Monitor,” Keller writes.

“We can’t recall another specific case where we were asked to hold back information for any length of time. We’ve had a couple of cases that entailed withholding information for a few hours. (It’s worth noting here that we have a lot of harrowing experience with this subject. We’ve had several cases in which correspondents and photographers for the Times or journalists associated with the Times were abducted—one of whom, as you know, was murdered.) In the case of Micah Garen, we were asked (by his father) to hold back news of his abduction because sensitive negotiations were under way to free him. In another case, Jeffrey Gettleman, a reporter for the Times, and Linsey Addario, a photographer on contract to us, were abducted, and for a few hours—until they talked their way out—we asked other news organizations not to identify them as journalists associated with the New York Times, because we had good reason to believe the abductors would kill them if they knew that.”

Composing a workable Uniform Code for Kidnapping Coverage is complicated by the fact that no two kidnappings are alike. In many abductions, as Keller points out, the press couldn’t report them in real time because they don’t know they’ve happened for a couple of days.

It’s an article of faith for some that no news is the best news when it comes to kidnappings. That may be true inside the envelope of the kidnapping, as the dust and blood settle. It’s also true when an operational reason—such as a rescue or a negotiation in progress—demands silence. But not everybody thinks prolonged quiet is always helpful. “I wasn’t necessarily persuaded by the argument that after 24 hours it was in Jill’s interest not to publish,” says the Times’ Filkins.

One could argue, as some foreign correspondents have to me, that news could be beneficial to the abductee’s case. It could alert the populace of the crime and produce clues. It could marshal opinion against the abductors for kidnapping a woman. It could help dispel, in Carroll’s case, that as a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, she wasn’t a crusader or evangelist but a reporter. That the kidnappers didn’t get everything they wanted out of her about her identity in the first hour of her abduction is absurd. A simple Google search of her name would have unearthed it, if the kidnappers didn’t already know. But if silence is almost always beneficial in kidnapping cases, why hasn’t the press spelled that out for readers? Isn’t that a big part of the story? And readers would benefit by knowing what role the security companies that protect reporters in Iraq play in determining how kidnappings get covered.

Besides stirring a debate on the best way to balance news and safety in covering kidnappings, I hope the case stimulates discussion about what sort of risks news organizations should sanction for stringers such as Carroll. According to news reports, she booked her interview appointment in a dangerous neighborhood without any sort of security covering her back. I’m not suggesting that Carroll shouldn’t have gone to Adil as she did, or that reporters should never attempt intrepid reporting without guns assisting them. But the risk that Carroll took upon herself for her newspaper to report a political story seems at this safe distance to have been foolish.


No Carroll story is complete without noting that the thugs who kidnapped her also murdered her translator, Allan Enwiyah.

I interviewed Ellen Knickmeyer for this story, but her decision to answer my question in narrative form frustrated my efforts to include her views more fully. With that in mind, I reproduce   my first e-mail to her and her first e-mail to me verbatim. In the interests of preserving her voice, I’ve not altered either.

In my previous Carroll column, I wrote blithely about journalists “effortlessly banding together across several time zones to squelch information in the name of protecting one colleague in Baghdad,” making it sound as if everybody in the press mindlessly obeyed the blackout without applying any original thinking. The point I intended to convey was about efficiency, not ease. My bad. Don’t send additional examples of a “Shafer bad” to