Fifteen Ways of Looking at the Media Blackout of Richard Engel's Abduction, Vol. I: ForS

When we published reports on Monday that Richard Engel and his crew had gone missing in Syria, it was over the objections of Engel's employer NBC News, which had been trying to enforce a media blackout on Engel's situation. That was an unpopular decision in some quarters, and it sparked a discussion on the Vulture Club, a Facebook group focusing on war-zone reporting moderated a Human Rights Watch staffer named Peter Bouckaert. Bouckaert urged Vulture Club members to email me and ask me to take the Engel post down. Below are some of their notes.

When we originally published the Engel post, we were somewhat limited in explaining our rationale for not honoring NBC's request, because our reasons were based in part on information we learned in off-the-record conversations. Now that Engel and his team have found safety, and that NBC has publicly revealed some of the circumstances of his disappearance, I feel comfortable stating that when NBC asked me not to report that Engel was missing, they knew absolutely nothing about his situation. They had no idea if he was alive, if he had been kidnapped, or if he had simply lost communications capability for an unusually extended period of time. All they knew was that they hadn't talked to him since Thursday.

Under those circumstances, no one at NBC made a case to me that reporting Engel's situation might cause anything concrete to happen to him, because they didn't know anything about his current circumstances. This wasn't a case where someone was telling us that jihadists had kidnapped them, and negotiations were ongoing. There were no negotiations, nor was there a concrete reason to believe there was anyone to negotiate with. As such—combined with the fact that the news had been repeatedly reported in the international press and domestically, and had been passed around on Twitter to far more people than eventually read about it on Gawker—I didn't see a compelling reason to not do what Gawker normally tries to do, which is (among other things) publish true, newsworthy information.

(And as a more general question, it's not clear how publicity as a rule increases risk to kidnapping victims. There are many instances where coverage could be helpful in increasing pressure on a group to safely return a victim.)

Not long after the post went up, Bouckaert posted this message on Facebook: "Task for the day: let John Cook of Gawker know how responsible journalists feel about his breaking of the NBC news blackout. Email the jerk at john@gawker.com."

Here are some of the responses.

From Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post, to me, on Twitter (I can't be sure whether Chandrasekaran's message was inspired by Bouckaert's Facebook message, but it arrived around the same time):

From Peter Bouckaert:

That was incredibly irresponsible and unethical. I hope you feel like the jerk you are.

From David Rohde, the New York Times reporter who spent seven months in captivity in Afghanistan, during which time the Times enforced a media blackout (with which Gawker complied):

I implore you to please take take down your post about Richard Engel. I have no information about what has happened, but I know that publicity can complicate the situation and possibly endanger people. If you did it in my case, you should do it in his. Whatever NBC has said or not said, it is best to avoid potentially risking someone's life.

From Nicole Tung, photographer:

I want to express my horror and outrage at the absolute irresponsibility of Gawker for publishing the news about the NBC team as a headline and then saying there is a news blackout. What is going through your mind when you do something like that? Are the editors at Gawker complete fools?

I have been working in Syria for eight months now and like anywhere, safety is first and your violation of the blackout is absolutely disgusting. You are not on the ground to see or hear just how damaging going public like that can be and your ill-thought decision could very well place people in more danger. You don't have facts but just some inane desire to break news for whatever egotistic trip you're on. I hope you understand how you violated not just NBC's request but those of the families of the people kidnapped as well.

Think before you do that the next time. You people absolutely sicken me and its crap like what you publish that gives us all a bad name and makes you an absolute vulture. You have no boundaries do you. Imagine if your family member was kidnapped and the stress of what you'd be going through when the media runs wild with the story. Just disgusting.

From Bruno Stevens, photographer:

As a veteran war photographer and friend of Richard's, I am asking you to remove your post concerning Richard Engel; I understand your motives for writing it, however in the present circumstances it may very well jeopardize chances for a swift and safe outcome of this event. You are fighting the wrong battle here, this has nothing to do with 'censorship' from the mainstream media, but simple common sense. At the moment, the more this story is exposed, the smaller the chances for Richard to come home safe and early.

Thank you for your understanding.

From Carsten Stormer, a German reporter:

You may think its just a story. But by disregarding the media black out you are actively putting colleagues at risk. Its shameful, unethical, selfrighteous and immoral.

From Ben Libbey:

If you have any conscience it will surely way very heavily on you if Engel ever ends up being hurt. Because you selfishly decided you knew more than NBC who just wanted to protect a man's life. I suppose if a child was captured and its mother begged you not to report on it you would scoff at her and write it up anyways? Because some people on twitter had mentioned it already? I hope for Engel's sake everything turns out fine, because I sure won't shed a tear for you if he turns out harmed, although someone like you might not even feel the remorse that should overwhelm a normal person. Congratulations man, even if some Turkish sites had mentioned it before you, the fact that you went ahead and introduced the story to most of the western world against the wishes of NBC in this situation... you have put the burden of responsibility squarely on your shoulders due to your egotistical drive to be the first. If anything is to happen to this innocent man's life, I sure expect you will do the correct thing and make a public apology for it.

From Daniel Witt, a writing tutor at Cleveland State University:

You are a shitty, shitty human being, and ought to be ashamed of yourself. If this ever happens to a member of your own family, I pray the news media affords them the respect you denied Mr. Engel. A real journalist.

From Sarah Bannen:

please please please delete the article.

From Julia Macfarlane, photographer:

As a journalist I wanted to write to express my utmost disgust at your publication's endangering of the missing journalists in Syria. It is a mark of quality journalism when outlets respect colleagues and rivals when their lives' safety are at stake. You have demonstrated that both yourself and your publication are nowhere close to that cut.

From Amanda Rivkin, photographer:

You are very lucky this ended well for Richard Engel because what you did yesterday was so extremely irresponsible and dangerous. I have no words for the breathtaking irresponsibility practiced by Gawker yesterday. Think different, don't follow others bad examples, lead by example, all of these very basic things we learn as children seem to have escaped or exuded you. There are many journalists, colleagues, who are disgusted with your post and Gawker after yesterday. I think it's likely this may keep you in the Gawker ghetto to which you have sunk.

From Carlos Palma, photographer:

I come this way to express my absolute dismay for the irresponsability demonstrated by the twitts of Gawker, relating to the kidnapping of the NBC team in northern Syria. For us, people reporting from Syria, security is amust in all fronts, and the irresponsability and the following of other twitts by "stupid" people claiming whatever identity that is not real, came to put in danger good people. Good people ought to be supported in all fronts Sir. And not, to add into the dangers they are already facing. Syria is a war and danger country Sir. Please show some respect for the rules of the ones putting teir neck into danger...

From Pierre Terdjman, photographer:

Man why dont you keep silent about the nbc guys? Wasnt it clear that we all journalists should have keep the blackout.

In french we say pauvre type.

From "Mani":

You decided not to respect the media blackout because you weren't told enough specific info regarding the threat that the NBC crew was facing...

Can't you understand that people were striving to get info on the ground and before we could know anything specific about who were the captors and what they wanted, it could have been vital to keep it low !? Professionals on abduction cases (not just the security manager of NBC) explain that going public very often complicates any negotiations and do not help for the release.

Don't you realize that when contact with the abductors would have been made, negotiations could have become impossible because the case was public !?

I am sure you don't as I assume you wouldn't like to live with the death of three men on your conscience. I don't think that's worth the little story you wrote. So why don't you just shut up next time !!?

See also: Fifteen Ways of Looking at the Media Blackout of Richard Engel's Abduction, Vol. II: Against

[Image by Jim Cooke]