Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Media wrong to conspire in hiding kidnapping news

Best wishes to Mellisa Fung, the intrepid CBC reporter who was released last week from what must have been a horrific and traumatic month imprisoned in a cave in Afghanistan.
She’s safe, and I’m very glad to hear that. But what are we to make of recent word that the world’s media reached a private agreement to keep her kidnapping a secret until now? With no disrespect to Fung or those who wanted to keep her safe, I’m stunned by the news.
As happy as we are to have Fung back, the truth is that most of us didn’t even know she was missing. That’s because in a most unusual development, the global media agreed from the outset not to report on her high-profile kidnapping.
It’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of the moment and see the media’s decision as evidence of the industry finally thinking about whether it’s helping or hurting with the way it covers the news. “We must put the safety of the victim ahead of our normal instinct for full transparency and disclosure,” CBC News publisher John Cruikshank said of the international decision to keep Fung’s kidnapping secret.
But why now? Why just this once? If we keep people safer by suppressing the news of their kidnappings, then why the wide-open, no-holds-barred coverage of all the other cases of kidnapping that have taken place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan in recent years? What made the media act differently this time out?
On first blush, you might presume that what’s different this time around is that a journalist is the victim. A quick search through five years of electronic newspaper archives puts that one to rest, however. Media outlets around the world continue to report all the details of the many kidnappings going on these days, including of journalists such as Alberta’s Amanda Lindhout, missing in Somalia since August.
So what’s special about the Fung case? Was it that she worked for the CBC? That she had friends in high places? That the federal government was two days away from an election at the time of her kidnapping?
The Globe and Mail wrote several thousand interesting words on the subject in Monday’s paper, but I never did find the answer.
Media bosses interviewed in the Globe piece were clearly aware that they’d done something very unusual in maintaining silence for a month about Fung’s kidnapping. They argued that they chose that course out of fear that Fung would be killed. Canadian Press policy on news about kidnapping and terrorism states “no news story is worth someone’s life,” CP editor-in-chief Scott White noted.
Absolutely. But how often has the same courtesy been extended to other kidnap victims? From my experience, virtually never. Poor Amanda Lindhout’s kidnapping was being loudly reported around the world within hours of her disappearance four months ago. What’s different this time?
“Editors exist to exercise their discretion about what should be published and in what way,” comments Globe editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon in his paper’s piece.
Fair enough. But with such power comes the responsibility to do so with excruciating fairness. Media integrity hinges on the public’s perception that news is reported with more or less of an even hand.
That’s a vital principle. The industry earns the public’s trust by treating every person at the centre of a news story in identical fashion. The idea is that we’re all equal before the media, for better or worse.
If the decision to keep Fung’s kidnapping a secret is the start of a more self-aware media recognizing the impact that thoughtless coverage can have, count me in. But I sense a one-off, available only to national CBC journalists kidnapped on the eve of federal elections. Numerous kidnappings happened while Fung was missing, the vast majority reported in the usual way by the world’s media.
I can’t imagine how Lindhout’s parents must feel right now, having experienced a dramatically different news curve when their own daughter was kidnapped. Revelations that the media cared enough to remain silent about Fung must have left them concluding that Lindhout’s safety simply didn’t matter as much.
From Nov. 14: Thanks to readers for passing along a few Web sites where people can find candidate information heading into Saturday’s municipal elections.
For West Shore residents, the West Shore Chamber of Commerce features candidate profiles at http://westshore.bc.ca/elections/. The Saanich Civic League has put together a very comprehensive site for Saanich residents at http://www.saanichcivicleague.ca/. Then there’s www.victoriavotes.ca, and blogger Bernard von Schulmann’s http://victoriavision.blogspot.com/.
See you at the polls.

1 comment:

Gerard White said...

Maybe you can't imagine how AL' poor parents feel, perhaps you should try. The people trying to negotiate their daughter and her colleagues release claim their efforts are hampered every time someone mentions their name. Perhaps the kidnappers are using Google Alerts, lets face it most of the news has come from the kidnappers and simply been regurgitated by others. This is what the kidnappers want and you are helping them.
Why don't you ask LH's parents if they want you blogging about something you know nothing about, if they say they do, blog away, but if they did want media coverage I'm sure you would have heard about it by now.
In asking the very question in a public forum indicates you have little real concern.