MRE President Calls For Two-Day News Blackout on All Overseas Abduction Stories

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By: Joe Strupp

The president of Military Reporters and Editors (MRE), who earlier criticized a two-day U.S. news blackout on reporting the abduction of a Christian Science Monitor freelancer, is now calling for a new agreement among news outlets to hold off reporting on any overseas abduction for 48 hours.

Sig Christenson, MRE president and a military affairs writer for the San Antonio Express-News, says he only opposed the initial blackout of coverage about the Jan. 7 kidnapping of Monitor stringer Jill Carroll because it appeared to involve special treatment of a journalist.

A blanket policy in which coverage of any overseas abduction would be held off for 48 hours, he claims, would be fair to all and may even help with early negotiations.

“I think that’s the right thing to do,” said Christenson, who plans to survey news agencies in the coming weeks to gauge interest. “It will give people a chance to negotiate and if everyone adheres to it, then there won’t be a double-standard for journalists.”

Some news agencies, who had agreed to a blackout on coverage of Carroll’s kidnapping immediately after she was taken in Baghdad, were criticized for holding off the news for several days. Carroll’s fate remains unknown after a video released one week ago showed her alive and her captors threatened to kill her if all female Iraqi prisoners were not released.

The blackout occurred after Monitor editors asked U.S. news outlets, and some foreign news agencies, to hold off reporting Carroll’s abduction for the first two days. They indicated that the less news about her situation, the easier her release might be.

But several editors, including Monitor Managing Editor Marshall Ingwerson, were reluctant to embrace Christenson’s idea, noting that extensive reporting helps in some cases. “We shouldn’t lock into any rigid rules because the dynamics of every case are different,” Ingwerson said. “There are times when immediate publication is beneficial.”

But, Ingwerson agreed that journalists should not be given special treatment in abduction news coverage. He also believed that the blackout on Carroll’s case likely helped. “It feels positive,” he said of the latest situation. “But we absolutely don’t know.”

Other editors whose news agencies had consented to the Monitor blackout request questioned whether an overall policy would work. “It is going to be very difficult as we move forward to maintain a moratorium of any kind,” said Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll. “It is going to be harder and harder to keep that kind of thing bottled up.”

Clark Hoyt, Washington editor for Knight Ridder, agreed. “I think you have to take those things on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “If abductors are announcing things immediately, I’m not sure if a moratorium would be the right thing to do.”

For Dave Hoffman, assistant managing editor for foreign news at The Washington Post, the principle of treating all abducted victims the same is good. “It is along the lines of what we believe,” he said, while declining to comment further on a policy that is not yet written.

Christenson, a three-time Iraq embed who also served as a unilateral in Baghdad, planned to write up a specific proposal to circulate among MRE members and news agencies seeking their cooperation. “I think each will have to examine the issue and decide how to handle it,” Christenson said. “But it make sense to me and it ought to make sense to anyone.”

The MRE president pointed out that news outlets had long held off reporting the names of those who are killed in combat until family members are informed, although he notes that those embargos are controlled by the military.

“I think you would want to give anyone who is abducted a chance to survive it,” Christenson added. “There is no point in reporting the news and getting someone killed. There seems to be a feeling that it helps diffuse the situation.”

Jim Crawley, MRE vice president and a military writer for Media General, said the idea was “a good way to advance the debate about media responsibility and figuring out a way of protecting those who are kidnapped, and still report the news.”

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