- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

Withholding news

Journalists see it as their function to collect information and pass it along to the public as expeditiously as possible, so they take it as a very serious matter when asked to withhold news.

That was my first reaction when I received a phone call at home a week ago on Saturday afternoon from a staff reporter who has been in and out of Iraq several times on our behalf.

A female journalist had been kidnapped in Baghdad that day, our reporter told me, but the press corps in Iraq was trying to organize a “news blackout” to allow time for authorities to try to secure her release.

The idea was that any publicity would make the abductee — later identified as freelance reporter Jill Carroll — appear to be that much more valuable a prize to whoever was holding her, and reduce her chances of being rescued alive.

Miss Carroll was still missing yesterday, one week after gunmen killed her translator and took her hostage as she was seeking to interview a Sunni leader in Baghdad.

Immediately after her abduction, journalists in Baghdad rallied, e-mailing colleagues and editors in a desperate bid to keep the story out of the news.

But for editors, there were other considerations, both ethical and practical, concerning an important news development. This was the first time a female American reporter had been abducted in Iraq, and that was news.

My first concern was to make sure that the victim was not one of ours. That fear was eased when Google News turned up a brief item on a Middle East Web site that identified her — not quite correctly — as “Jewel Carroll” of the Christian Science Monitor.

My next step was to call Tom Carter, the editor in charge of the foreign desk at the time. He told me the Associated Press had moved a few paragraphs about the kidnapping at 6:30 that morning, without naming the victim, but had filed nothing since.

Next I called the AP news desk in New York. The supervisor told me the wire service had no plan to retract the earlier article since it was not incorrect, but was going along with the blackout and would not include the kidnapping in any further stories.

Next I called Managing Editor Fran Coombs at home. Like me, he was not very happy about withholding news, but knows what it’s like to lie awake nights worrying about a reporter or photographer in Iraq. He reluctantly agreed to go along as long as the AP was not filing anything more.

Questions persist

Others in the industry made the same decision. The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other leading news organizations withheld the story for the next two days.

The Christian Science Monitor, for whom Miss Carroll had been working, finally issued a news release about the abduction on Monday afternoon and the story appeared on the front pages of several major newspapers Tuesday. We included it in our daily roundup of developments in Iraq.

Questions are being raised, however, about the propriety of the blackout. Jack Shafer, writing Tuesday in Slate Magazine, said it was “not clear to me whether the same set of reportorial rules currently applies to the kidnapping coverage of foreign journalists and to non-journalist foreigners in Iraq.”

It’s a fair question. Certainly, reporters who are embedded with military units in Iraq are required as a condition of the embed to withhold information that could put the unit at risk.

A tougher question was the one put to me by Mr. Coombs that Saturday: “Would we hold back the story if it was a Red Cross official who had been kidnapped and the Red Cross was asking?”

I don’t know. In fact, the Red Cross has never asked, and it obviously lacks the resources available to the news media to organize such a blackout.

But I would sooner be accused of hypocrisy than of getting anyone killed for the sake of a news story.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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