False Report of Rescue Operation Aired

By: An erroneous report Wednesday that an operation was under way to rescue the South Korean hostages in Afghanistan played widely in the media, raising questions about whether reporting such maneuvers in real time might put the operation itself at risk.

The Taliban has held a group of 21 church-group volunteers hostage for two weeks, seeking the release of prisoners, including some held by the United States. A deadline set by the Taliban passed on Wednesday with no word of the hostages' fate.

The Reuters news service issued a three-paragraph report at 7:42 a.m. EDT Wednesday that an operation aimed at rescuing the hostages was under way. A full-length story moved at 7:51 p.m. Both stories quoted Khowja Seddiqi, a district chief in the area, as the source.

At 9:31 a.m., Reuters sent notice that the story had been withdrawn, saying that "the official quoted in the story did not make the comment reported."

"The error occurred because of a miscommunication between correspondents," Reuters spokesman Ty Trippet said. "When it became clear that this was not the case, we immediately issued a worldwide advisory withdrawing the original story and making clear that it was wrong."

The Associated Press could get no confirmation of the original Reuters report, spokesman Paul Colford said. The news agency ran a story later in the morning saying that the Afghan military denied media reports claiming that a rescue attempt had been launched.

One potential source of confusion was that the Afghan military had dropped leaflets in the area warning residents of an upcoming military mission. The military said action was weeks away and unconnected to the hostage crisis.

The confusion over the leaflets had nothing to do with Reuters' original report, Trippet said.

CNN's Kiran Chetry, at 8:29 a.m., said that Reuters had reported that a rescue operation had started. Fox News Channel's Steve Doocy said there were "some wire reports today that the army over there is dropping leaflets on towns saying, you know, you better get out because we are about to launch an operation to try to liberate these people."

ABC News ran the Reuters report on its Web site, although spokesman Cathie Levine said the network had - incorrectly, it turned out - confirmed the report. It was couched on "Good Morning America," where it was reported that a rescue operation "may be getting under way."

A report on BBC News was led: "Fighting has erupted in the area where a group of South Korean hostages are being held by the Taliban, suggesting an operation has begun to free them."

The idea of reporting on such a mission before the results are known can pit competing interests against each other: the compelling need of news organizations to report the news as it knows it versus the knowledge that the news may put some people in danger.

In this case, the AP "might have waited to report (news of a rescue operation) until there was some indication that our reporting wasn't going to cause additional danger," said John Daniszewski, the news organization's international editor. "The general policy is we would not want to inject ourselves into the story and cause danger to people."

He compared it to reporters invited along on a police raid. They wouldn't call the targets of the raid for comment ahead of time, he said.

"You don't want to be part of the story," he said. "You want to be a witness to it."

Levine said ABC News also takes such things into account. "In this case, the story had already been on a wire service and had been reported worldwide," she said.

Reuters declined to address the issue, other than to note that its original report had been sourced to an Afghan official.


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