Is a Story Worth a Life?
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Is a Story Worth a Life?

Diplomat Robert Fowler speaks at “News Blackouts Save Lives” event.

One diplomat and three journalists convened at Innis Town Hall at the University of Toronto last night, for a discussion called “News Blackouts Save Lives.” Organized by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, the question up for debate was an ethical one: should news outlets report on international kidnapping cases, knowing that such reports could potentially put the prisoner in more danger? In other words, is a story worth a life?
Robert Fowler, the United Nations special envoy to Niger who was captured by Al-Qaeda on December 14, 2008 and held for 130 days, was the featured speaker. He was joined by Globe and Mail Foreign Editor Stephen Northfield, CTV News President Robert Hurst, and Toronto Star Publisher John Cruickshank, whose outlets all reported on the incident. “Everything that was said, and indeed not said, had an impact,” said Fowler. “I don’t think [the kidnappers] cared very much about who I was other than being a UN guy. But gentlemen,” he addressed the panellists, “you told them.”

The news of Fowler’s kidnapping was picked up in Canada after Agence France-Presse, a French news agency, broke the story the night it happened. It ran in every major Canadian national newspaper and aired on every nightly newscast. The coverage continued until Fowler was released on April 21, 2009. The thirty-odd men who were holding Fowler and his colleague, fellow Canadian diplomat Louis Guay, had radios broadcasting information from the Canadian media. Because of the coverage, Fowler claims the kidnappers learned about his identity, his career—including his having been an advisor to three prime ministers—and about the negotiations.
Northfield said that it’s the Globe’s default policy to publish, but that of course exceptions may be made in special circumstances. They don’t publish if they will “knowingly” cause harm to the prisoner, or provide the kidnappers with any information they don’t already have. In Fowler’s case, Northfield does not believe the Canadian media provided any fresh or tactical information to the kidnappers.
Hurst assured the audience that CTV takes these issues very seriously. They discuss, debate, weigh the pros and cons, and reach out to informed parties such as governments and other news sources. He added that the lens should be taken off the Canadian media regarding this incident. The Canadian minister of foreign affairs, the government of Niger, and the UN were the sources responsible for leaking the story, he claimed.

John Cruickshank, Robert Hurst, and Stephen Northfield address a packed Innis Town Hall.

The coverage surrounding Fowler was contrasted with the way the media handled the kidnapping of Melissa Fung, a CBC journalist who was captured and held in Afghanistan roughly two months before Fowler’s story hit the news. Cruickshank, who was head of CBC News at the time, put an embargo on the story, and all other news outlets followed suit. It wasn’t until Fung was released twenty-eight days later that the public learned about the story.
Fowler’s case was an entirely different set of circumstances, Northfield pointed out: in that case, news editors woke up to the story the morning after it had happened. “It’s very hard for us to maintain a blackout when there’s already light,” Cruickshank added. Nevertheless, Hurst admits there is a double standard when it comes to the way the media reports on kidnapping cases involving journalists versus cases not involving journalists. “There’s no simple answer to these questions,” said Northfield. “I wish there was a rule book.”
Fowler sees this as a huge opportunity to create just that: a policy regarding all kidnapping cases. He believes blackouts should be employed in every instance, regardless of whether or not the prisoner is a journalist. But if that’s not possible and the news leaks, he says it’s imperative that reporters and editors talk to those in the know—other media, government, kidnapping experts—before anything goes to print or on the air.
An inquiry launched by the Canadian Press after the Fung incident concluded that no story is worth a life. “I hope this would be the underlying editorial policy of every board,” Fowler remarked.
For a refresher on the coverage of Fowler’s kidnapping, see the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the CBC, and the National Post.
All photos by Remi Carreiro/Torontoist.