Ethical Questions Surround Times Decision to Keep Rohde Kidnapping Secret

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter David Rohde and a fellow reporter escaped from their Taliban captors on June 19, 2009, after being held captive in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan for over seven months. The Times persuaded dozens of news organizations around the world not to report on Rohde’s kidnapping during his captivity, touching off an ethical debate within the news media industry about balancing a duty to inform the public with minimizing the risks posed to kidnapped reporters.

Rohde, Tahir Ludin, an Afghani reporter who has worked with The Times of London, and their driver, Asadullah Mangal, were abducted Nov. 10, 2008, outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, while on their way to interview a Taliban commander, The New York Times reported June 20.

The Times reported that Rohde told his wife that on the night of June 19, he and Ludin climbed over the wall of a compound where they were being held in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. They found a nearby military base, and on the following day were flown to the American military base in Bagram, Afghanistan. Mangal did not attempt to escape with the others. The Times reported that Rohde was in good health, but that Ludin injured his foot in the escape.

The June 20 story was The Times’ first mention of Rhode’s ordeal. “Until now, the kidnapping has been kept quiet by The Times and other media organizations out of concern for the men’s safety,” the story said.

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller explained the newspaper’s decision not to report Rohde’s kidnapping. “The prevailing view among David’s family, experts in kidnapping cases, officials of several governments and others we consulted was that going public could increase the danger to David and the other hostages. The kidnappers initially said as much,” Keller said in the June 20 story. “We decided to respect that advice, as we have in other kidnapping cases, and a number of other news organizations that learned of David’s plight have done the same. We are enormously grateful for their support.”

The Times reported June 20 that Keller and Rohde’s family declined to discuss details of the reporters’ captivity, except to say that no ransom money was paid and no Taliban or other prisoners were released in exchange for Rohde. “Kidnapping, tragically, is a flourishing industry in much of the world,” Keller said in the story. “As other victims have told us, discussing your strategy just offers guidance for future kidnappers.”

Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz reported June 21 that some blogs and smaller news organizations covered the story of Rohde’s kidnapping, and it was carried by Italian news agency Adnkronos International as early as Nov. 11, 2008. But the vast majority of media outlets that knew about the story did not report it. Kurtz reported that editors for The Associated Press (AP) and Washington Post said they decided to uphold the media blackout in the interest of Rohde’s safety. The AP reported June 22 that Keller called the decision to keep quiet about the capture of Rohde “agonizing,” and a “position that we revisited over and over again.”

On June 28, The Times reported that information about Rohde was also kept from the user-edited online encyclopedia Two days after the kidnapping, Michael Moss, an investigative reporter at The Times and a friend of Rohde, used an anonymous user name to alter the information page about Rohde to emphasize his work that could be seen as sympathetic to Muslims.

“I knew from my jihad reporting that the captors would be very quick to get online and assess who he was and what he’d done, what his value to them might be,” Moss said. “I’d never edited a Wikipedia page before.”

The Times reported that Moss had also made similar changes to Rohde’s “topic page” on The Times Web site, and omitted the name of Rohde’s former employer, The Christian Science Monitor, because it contained the word Christian.

After Wikipedia user-editors made several attempts to add information about the kidnapping to Rohde’s page in mid-November 2008, Catherine J. Mathis, chief spokeswoman for The New York Times Company, called Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, and asked for his help. Wales appointed an administrator to help monitor and control the page until Rohde escaped. The Times reported that Wikipedia administrators blocked the page periodically between November 2008 and June 20, 2009. Although users were still able to post information about the kidnapping dozens of times, each time it was removed. After Rohde’s escape, The Times reported, Mathis e-mailed Wales, who unblocked Rohde’s page himself. Users updated the page shortly thereafter.

In a July 10 interview for National Public Radio’s “On the Media,” Wales said the tactics were unusual. “The particular point of this kidnapping was presumably, as in the Daniel Pearl case, to create a bit of a media circus and to call attention, and denying that attention seemed useful,” Wales said. “It’s very puzzling. I hope we don’t have to do it very often.”

New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt reported in a column July 4 that Moss and Mathis had also persuaded a group of New England newspapers to remove Rohde’s wedding notice and photos from their Web site so the kidnappers would not have personal information they could use to pressure him psychologically. Hoyt wrote that he found the removal “troubling” because The Times itself takes “a hard line against removing information from its own archive.”

Kelly McBride, a faculty member of the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla., said on a June 22 segment of PBS’ “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer” that the fact that “every major news organization in the world agreed to withhold the information” made her “pretty uncomfortable.”

“As a journalist, you have a set of loyalties. And your first loyalty is to your audience,” McBride said. “If you look at this on a continuum, at one end you have, ‘Publish everything you know and endanger the reporter’s life,’ and at the other end, ‘Publish absolutely nothing.’ And in between those two points, you have many, many alternatives. And I don’t know what type of alternatives were considered in the span of seven months for releasing some information about the kidnapping that maybe wouldn’t have endangered Mr. Rohde’s life.”

Keller, also a guest on the June 22 “Newshour” show, responded that “sometimes decisions that seem easy and clear cut in an ethics seminar are a lot more complicated in real life.”

New York magazine speculated on June 22 that one goal of the media blackout might have been to keep Rohde’s ransom to a reasonable amount. The New York story quoted two anonymous sources involved in the rescue efforts as saying the paper had authorized as much as $2 million in ransom funds, and an anonymous American contractor who suggested that the guards might have been bribed to look the other way as Rohde and Ludin made their way out of the compound.

Asra Q. Nomani, a friend and former colleague of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and beheaded by Pakistani militants in 2002, defended The Times’ decision to keep the kidnapping a secret in a June 22 story on the blog The Daily Beast. “In 2002, Wall Street Journal editors and Dow Jones officials chose to publicize [Pearl’s] kidnapping with interviews on Larry King Live and regular headline alerts on CNN. Behind the scenes, some Pakistani investigators, FBI kidnapping specialists, and Wall Street Journal staffers didn’t agree with the strategy, with one arguing: ‘Get Danny’s face off TV!’” Nomani wrote. “But media outlets learned from Danny’s fate.”

In a June 23 story, Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor and Publisher magazine, explained why his publication was among the more than 40 news organizations that chose to go along with what he called “the most amazing press blackout on a major event that I have ever seen.”

“Editors [from The Times] explained that efforts were going on to free Rohde and it was so sensitive any news break might jeopardize this,” Mitchell wrote. “Remember: when Jill Carroll was kidnapped, The Christian Science Monitor only managed to keep it a secret over a weekend. She was then held for months. Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping also emerged fairly quickly–and we all know how that one ended.”

However, Mitchell also said he had misgivings. “In keeping the story secret were we jeopardizing other reporters, or even other citizens, who might be traveling in the region of the kidnapping unaware of the dangers? I feared that we were all doing a disservice to many others for the sake of, maybe, helping the cause of one reporter.”

In a June 20 post on The Christian Science Monitor’s Global News Blog, Poynter Institute ethics expert and Silha Center advisory board member Bob Steele said news organizations face “competing interests” when reporters are kidnapped. “We have the primary obligation of journalists to report in a timely, comprehensive manner on significant events, [b]ut I also believe that we also have an obligation to minimize harm.” Steele said there are no hard and fast rules for such situations. “I think that rules imply rigidity, and rigidity greatly diminishes good ethical decisionmaking. The trick is to make journalistic and ethical decisions in a fashion that is not unduly influenced by, say, pressure from terrorists, the self-interest we have in protecting one of our own, or the potential connections we have with government agencies,” he said.

Steele also said a double standard could arise when news media choose to remain quiet when a reporter is kidnapped. “We show a preference for one of our own in journalism generally by holding back a story or elements of a story compared to how we might cover the kidnapped oil field worker or diplomat or tourist. In those cases, we might not bring as serious a deliberative process to how we’re going to cover it.”

Matthew Ingram, an editor at Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, wrote in a July 1 post on the Nieman Journalism Lab Web site that there was “no evidence whatsoever” that the media blackout saved Rohde’s life, and that the situation created “an obvious double standard.”

“Journalists, including those at The New York Times and other media outlets, routinely report on people who have been kidnapped by terrorists, without any obvious qualms about how that reporting might or might not affect the chances that they might be released or escape,” Ingram wrote. “But when it is a journalist who is held, the process changes completely. That’s a clear case of favouritism, and it makes the entire industry look bad.”

Keller was quoted in Hoyt’s July 4 column stating that The Times listens to appeals to keep kidnappings quiet. “I would apply the same policy to a journalist, to a non-journalist, to a civilian or to the military. We don’t take life and death situations lightly,” he said.

Edward Wasserman, a journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee University and featured speaker at the Spring 2008 Silha ethics forum, wrote in a July 7 Miami Herald op-ed that The Times’ handling of the Rohde kidnapping situation was part of “almost eight post-9/11 years during which major institutions have wavered from core principles out of fear of terrorist atrocities.” Wasserman continued, “In such cases, it’s right to ask if the fear is warranted, if the measures taken are reasonably related to it, and whether they’re compatible with the duties and responsibilities we claim to live by. What’s needed is some serious attempt to clarify just what principles journalists should derive from this.”

Wasserman said “journalists believe that on balance the world is better off when realities are exposed instead of concealed.” However, there are always exceptions, Wasserman wrote. “Media show restraint with suicides, bomb threats, rape victims, juvenile crime – and it may be time to revisit the whole matter of kidnap coverage. But that’s a very different matter from covering up news as a special favor to a powerful friend.”

According to The New York Observer’s Web site, Keller told Times Assistant Managing Editor Rick Berke June 22 that Rohde thanked him for not reporting on the kidnapping. Berke interviewed Keller and Managing Editor Jill Abramson about their roles at the newspaper at a public forum put on by The Times to allow readers to hear its editors talk candidly.

Keller said, “I talked to David and he said, ‘By the way, thank you for not making a public event out of this. We heard the people who kidnapped me were obsessed with my value in the marketplace. If there were a lot of news stories, they would have held me much tighter.’”

– Jacob Parsley

Silha Research Assistant



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