Monday, 29 June 2009

All Quiet on the Waziri Front

There's an interesting piece in the New York Times today on investigative journalist David Rohde - who was kidnapped in Afghanistan last year and who escaped last week from his captors in Waziristan, in northern Pakistan - and the efforts to extend the media blackout on news of the kidnapping to his Wikipedia article.

The blackout was orchestrated by the New York Times Company and was said to have involved forty international news agencies, from NPR to al-Jazeera. NYT personnel "believed that publicity would raise Mr. Rohde's value to his captors as a bargaining chip and reduce his chance of survival", the story says, quoting Rohde's colleague Michael Moss as saying "I knew from my jihad reporting that the captors would be very quick to get online and assess who he was and what he’d done, what his value to them might be".

Along with staff at other news agencies, NYT personnel contacted Jimmy Wales too, who passed the matter along to a small group of administrators who reverted mentions of the kidnapping and protected the article a number of times over the following months. Michael Moss also apparently edited the article to emphasise Rohde's Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the Srebrenica massacre, as well as his work on Guantanamo Bay, believing that if his captors read the article they might view him as more sympathetic towards Muslims.

Jimbo acknowledges in the NYT piece that the matter was made easier by the lack of reliable sources reporting the kidnapping - a consequence of the blackout - which meant that the biographies of living persons policy could operate to keep any references to the kidnapping out of the article. The policy, of course, was originally intended to keep fabricated material out of articles, but it worked equally well to assist the blackout in this case.

The ethics of the blackout have come into question following Rohde's escape. NPR reported Poynter Institute journalism ethics lecturer Kelly McBride as saying "I find it a little disturbing, because it makes me wonder what else 40 international news organizations have agreed not to tell the public". Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor says that the question of whether the press has a double standard in keeping quiet about their own while regularly reporting on other kidnappings will likely become part of the debate. Greg Mitchell, the editor of industry journal Editor & Publisher, details that organisation's internal debates and ultimate decision to adhere to the blackout. Mitchell raises a potential competing public interest argument, that information about events such as kidnappings in a certain area could, in some cases, help protect the public (though the average NYT reader doesn't hang out near Kabul that often - it might help protect other journalists though).

On the Wikipedia front, this is an interesting biographies of living persons case because every aspect of it involves journalists, who as a profession develop, apply and teach a whole suite of ethical principles governing their work, principles that many have suggested Wikipedia ought to adapt or learn from.

It's regularly true that hard cases make bad policy, and it is so here: the kidnapping was said to have been reported by an unnamed Afghani news agency, and apparently by Italian agency Adnkronos too; the existence of reliable sources on the matter (which I cannot verify due to absent or broken links) throws into doubt the legitimacy of enforcing the blackout on Wikipedia.

This may well put a wedge between two similar but distinct camps of support for the biographies of living persons policy: those who believe that such articles should be written from a "do no harm" perspective, and those who have a similar sympathy but only go so far as supporting a strict, immediatist adherence to ordinary content policy (instead of the typical eventualist stance), and no further.