Veteran newsmen, kidnap victim, debate media coverage

Journalist Hugh Winsor and the Canadian Journalism Foundation hosted a lively debate at the University of Toronto’s Innis College on November 17th about media ethics titled ‘News Blackouts Save Lives.’

The gathering tackled the conflict between the media’s natural inclination to run with breaking news stories and the potential consequences of such rash decisions.

The discussion focused on the kidnapping by al Qaeda of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler and his colleague Louis Guay on December 14, 2008, while serving as the UN’s Special Envoy in Niger.

In attendance with Fowler were Stephen Northfield, the Globe and Mail’s foreign editor, Robert Hurst, president of CTV News and Current Affairs and John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star, all of whom played a significant role in their respective outlet’s decision to run with the Fowler story.

The representatives of the three news organizations sparred with Fowler over how Canadian news outlets handled their coverage of his kidnapping. The question of how much, if any thing, should be reported under such circumstances was the crux of the debate.

Fowler’s primary concern centres on the impact of the media’s release of his situation in Niger following his kidnapping.

He believes the media’s intense coverage of the event increased the length of his captivity and jeopardized his survival. Referring to the kidnapping of the CBC’s Mellissa Fung on October 12, 2008, Fowler emphasized how employing a news blackout may have kept her alive and secured her release, in contrast to his own fate.

“It worked for Mellissa Fung. It had something to do with (her release in) 28 days versus (my release in) 130 days,” he said. “I never once thought I would emerge from this alive.”

In addressing the Globe and Mail’s decision to run the Fowler story, Stephen Northfield echoed moderator Hugh Wilson’s notion that it would “challenge the DNA of journalists not to disseminate information.” Northfield explained how the Globe assessed the situation based on two criteria.

“Are we providing information that the kidnappers didn’t have?” he said. “And, if so, what’s the effect of that information.”

Northfield’s criteria reinforced one of the major points Fowler made in his opening address regarding the danger of the dissemination of information without wide consideration of the consequences.

“Before you print such stuff, consult people who know,” he said, referring to governmental organizations and other media outlets that have prior experience with such situations.

Northfield added that Fowler’s story had been released by the Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Europe prior to publication by any North American media. This, he stated, justified its publication here as the story had already been broken. He did, however add a caveat to the Globe’s coverage.

“We didn’t provide the kidnappers with any new, fresh tactile information,” he said. “I wish there was a rulebook for these situations, each case is completely individual.”

Robert Hurst emphasized CTV’s interpretation of the Fowler situation as quite straightforward.

“It wasn’t the Canadian media that broke this story,” he said. “We won’t publish if we have information that will disrupt a resolution of the case.”

This sentiment was shared by the Star’s John Cruickshank, who saw no ethical dilemma in printing the Fowler story.

“We felt no qualms about it, we thought about it in practical terms, the story was already out,” he said. “Our biggest problem may not be handling the ethical situation, but rather the practical one.”

All members of the panel did agree that further discussion of how to handle such sensitive ethical issues is necessary. The CBC’s Paul Hunter, who attended the event as a spectator, advocated a blanket code to blackout all such stories until a mutual standard is agreed upon by the media as a whole.