Ask the ethicist: Should news organizations participate in media blackouts?

January 16, 2016
Category: Newsletters

Journalists across the United States rejoiced this morning when they learned that Jason Rezaian, the Tehran bureau chief of The Washington Post, would be set free in a prisoner swap with Iran. But the good news was followed by the revelation that several prominent news organizations knew about the prisoner exchange in advance and decided not to report on it at the request of the State Department, which worried early reports might endanger the swap.

In most cases, U.S. journalists are aggressive in reporting information when American lives are at stake. But many, including The Huffington Post and CNN, broke from this pattern on an important story involving the welfare of five U.S. citizens. Below is a question-and-answer session with Kelly McBride, vice president of The Poynter Institute and its media ethicist, on whether news organizations were justified in holding their silence.

When a source divulges sensitive information, as a State Department official did in this case, what questions should journalists ask themselves before publishing?

Was this off-the-record? If so, under what conditions does the source say the information can be attributed? Will the source be named at that point? What harm is caused to my audience if I publish this information now? What harm is caused if I withhold?

We’ve seen journalists participate in media blackouts before when their fellow reporters are involved. The New York Times kept word of David Rohde’s imprisonment quiet, and NBC managed to suppress reports of Richard Engel’s capture. Does the profession of the imperiled individual matter when considering whether to adhere to a blackout? Should journalists be given special treatment?

I’m OK with temporary blackouts that allow for negotiation or extraction. I get more concerned with long-term arrangements. It was months and months that every media organization in the world, including Wikipedia, agreed to suppress the news of Rohde’s kidnapping. I felt like that one went on too long, because the information that he had been kidnapped may have led nonprofit organizations and private companies operating in the area to behave differently. But I understand that by not reporting it, the ransom price for Rohde was also suppressed. So that was a really tough situation.

Journalists have been criticized for agreeing to not to publish important stories at the request of the U.S. government. The New York Times held a story on warrantless wiretapping at the urging of the Bush administration for a year, to public outcry. Does that case differ from today’s? If so, how?

When it’s our government trying to conceal their own actions, the threshold for withholding the information should be exceedingly high and exceedingly limited in time. To withhold information at all, editors in a newsroom should be convinced by evidence that innocent people are likely to be harmed by disclosure.

Under what circumstances is it acceptable to violate a media blackout?

It’s not like there is an official declaration of a blackout. Instead, more than one editor agrees to comply with a request not to publish. So really, at any time an editor may become convinced that a blackout is unwarranted because the public benefit of publishing the information outweighs any harm that might be caused.

Do news organizations have moral responsibility if their reports disrupt sensitive activities like prisoner exchanges or surveillance programs? Are they morally responsible if the exchanges go awry or criminals escape detection?

Yes definitely. In such cases, there is very little public benefit to knowing what is happening sooner rather than later, and the blackout request is usually hours or days.

The Huffington Post opted to reveal the name of the source who gave them information about the forthcoming prisoner exchange. When you have information about a media blackout, do your obligations to your source change?

I like that the HuffPost did that because it brings a level of transparency to the blackout after it is over. Sources are always going to ask for anonymity. I think it’s reasonable to negotiate a deal where the source goes on the record when the information is published.

Are media blackouts ever warranted?

I get uncomfortable with absolute conformity with a blackout. Instead, I think each editor needs to decide if withholding information from the public is warranted. It’s cool if the editors all talk to each other to hear what everyone is thinking. But I can’t imagine an editor hearing that two or three of his peers had agreed to withhold information and then not making an independent decision, rather than just following the crowd.

So really, the term blackout is what concerns me.

Benjamin Mullin, a staff writer at Poynter, contributed to this report.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the story erroneously stated that The New York Times suppressed news of the Bay of Pigs invasion. That is untrue.