When a Journalist is Kidnapped
The news media suppressed the story of the abduction of an AP staffer in Somalia. Was a double standard at work?
Christopher Callahan is associate dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a senior editor of AJR.
Confined to cramped rooms in battle-scarred Somali neighborhoods, Tina Susman assumed the U.S. news media were covering her story. After all, the kidnapping of Americans overseas – especially in hot spots such as Somalia – is news by nearly all conventional standards.
But the Associated Press reporter's plight was not revealed until she was freed, 20 days after being kidnapped in broad daylight on a Mogadishu street. AP editors had concluded that a story might hinder negotiations with the kidnappers, and that's what they told editors and reporters from other news organizations who called after receiving tips on the abduction. Fifteen to 20 news organizations knew about the kidnapping, but all bowed to the AP's request to suppress the story.
The case has triggered questions about whether Susman's story was treated differently by the press because she's a journalist, whether news organizations indulged the AP more than they would a non-media company, and how kidnappings should be covered.
AP International Editor Tom Kent says Susman was not given special consideration. "If we got a request like that...our first instinct would be to honor it," Kent says. "We would withhold news of a kidnapping of anyone if we felt that it was not already in the public domain, and if we felt that coverage would further imperil the person's life or the prospect of an early release."
Editors from news outlets that acceded to the AP request, including the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today, say they too treated Susman the same as anyone else.
But others aren't convinced.
"I found it very peculiar," says Cmdr. Joseph Gradisher, the Pentagon's lead press officer on Somalia. "If we at the Department of Defense had tried to hold something like that quiet the press would have been all over us."
Adds Dan Bolton, executive editor of the Glendale News-Press in California and chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' national ethics committee, "You'd be hard pressed to convince [news organizations] to hold back that information about the businessman who's been kidnapped."
Susman herself does not rule out the possibility that she received special treatment. "I frankly don't know," she says. "Journalists are human beings just like anybody else. They want to protect their friends, and a lot of the journalists who observed this thing were friends of mine."
Bolton says he can envision kidnapping cases in which the press should suppress the news, but there must be evidence that disclosing details would endanger the victims. "Unless there was a clear indication that there was going to be real harm done, it would have been in the interest of journalism to publish the story," Bolton says. "Were they really convinced she was going to die or were they getting a bit overcautious?"
The AP's Kent says the kidnappers gave no indication that a story would harm Susman. But he says the AP had been engaged in "promising talks" with the kidnappers and "we couldn't see how publicity would add any positive element to the situation."
"We were making progress all the time, and we felt that since we were, it made sense to leave our conversations undisturbed," Kent says.
AP President Louis Boccardi says the wire service believed "publicity would make a successful conclusion more difficult." But he declines to say how, maintaining such information would reveal how the AP might handle future cases.
Editors at other news organizations who withheld the story say the AP's argument was compelling. But did those editors treat the AP with the same rigor as they would a non-media company?
Jackson Diehl, Washington Post assistant managing editor for foreign news, says his paper agreed to withhold coverage in part because there was no authority other than the AP to gauge the danger a story might pose for Susman. (In fact, the Post could have contacted the State Department; U.S. officials in Mogadishu were involved in the negotiations.)
3SA Today Washington/World Editor Michael Zuckerman says his reporters did try to get information from the State Department, but were stonewalled. After a few days, they gave up.
The New York Times didn't initially report the story because, Foreign Editor Bernard Gwertzman argues, the kidnapping of "an unknown reporter" simply wasn't a big deal. The paper did report her release, however.
Zuckerman and Chicago Tribune Foreign Editor James Yuenger say their trust in the AP was a factor in holding the story. "I know these guys," explains Yuenger. "I used to work for the AP, and I have a very close working relationship with the AP foreign editor and foreign desk. I decided that we would go along with what the AP wanted, and we did."
USA Today Editor Peter Prichard says he agrees with the initial decision, but believes his newspaper should have followed up on the story after a few days. "These requests to withhold information for a short time are sometimes valid," he says. "When you withhold it over a longer time, it's a different question."
Defenders of suppressing the Susman story refer to past cases, such as last year's kidnapping of a New York garment executive, in which the New York Post did hold back reporting.
But in those rare cases, it is often because the police do not want the kidnappers to know that they are on the case. And it is virtually always the police, or some other government agency that deals with kidnappings, that makes the request to suppress the news.
Brent Smith, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, believes publicity can be helpful in certain kidnapping cases. He says news organizations should not make decisions on whether to report kidnappings on their own. They should rely on the advice of government agencies.
The AP decided independently to suppress the Susman story, but no one in the government disagreed with the decision, Kent says.
Press coverage of foreign kidnappings can be dangerous in certain cases, but the Susman case does not appear to be one of those, says Professor Dipak Gupta, codirector of the Institute for International Security and Conflict Resolution at San Diego State University.
"When you have a kidnapping, it can be one of two kinds," Gupta says. "One is purely for money, and the other is for a political purpose." Gupta points out that in political kidnappings terrorists want publicity, and therefore press coverage can play a big role by publicizing their cause. But in cases where kidnappers are simply seeking money, he adds, press coverage has little impact.
In the Susman case, the victim was taken hostage for money. The kidnappers made no effort to publicize their crime. In fact, Susman does not believe her profession was a factor: She was likely kidnapped simply because she was one of the few accessible Americans employed by a large company.
The press treatment of Susman appears to be "a case of favoritism," Gupta says. The Pentagon's Gradisher agrees, and says that most Somalis don't have access to the media. "What would be the danger in this case if her plight was published in newspapers back here in the States? The average Somali on the streets wouldn't be reading because he doesn't have access to the media."
But Susman agrees with her colleagues' decision not to publish.
"In retrospect, I think it was probably the right decision," she says. "These kidnappers who were holding me were young, arrogant thugs who wanted attention as much as money.... If they had gotten the impression they had their hands on a real celebrity, they would have been a lot tougher."
Bob Steele, director of the Poynter Institute's ethics program, says an alternative might have been to publish the story but play it down. "It's possible this story could have played on page 14B" and protected both the AP's safety concerns and journalistic values, he says.
But AP President Boccardi says he's annoyed by the debate. "In a circumstance like this, you make the decisions you have to make when you have to make them with a life at stake. And I think we made the right decisions.
*The situation we confronted here was extremely perilous. It ended well, and I guess I don't have a lot of patience...after the battle for second-guessing."
Steele believes the Susman case will provide journalists with a benchmark when considering future kidnappings.
"It is the kind of case that allows us to do some serious soul-searching on covering important stories...," he says. "It may crystallize for us some of the decision making factors we use, and it certainly challenges us to revisit our standards and ask important questions about consistency." l ###