NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel has apparently gone missing in Syria. For his safety, NBC has requested that reporters refrain from investigating or sharing details of his whereabouts, or what exactly has happened to him.
While no journalist ever likes to be told not to report on something, and we generally have an automatic impulse to start yelling about the First Amendment and how a free press is necessary for a functioning democracy, there are cases where an exception should be made. Like when someone’s life could be in danger. For the sake of Engel’s safe return, the media should honor NBC’s request and refrain from reporting on details of his location and status.
Media blackouts on the stories of missing or kidnapped journalists became standard practice after the highly publicized kidnapping and execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. Pakistani media coverage inflamed the situation by publicizing the fact that Pearl was Jewish, something he’d kept under wraps to protect himself from increased danger in Pakistan. There are still debates as to whether his profession or religion played a larger role in his death.
The story was also leading news in the United States, with updates as the kidnappers made demands and threatened to kill him if those demands weren’t met. It’s widely believed that the intense media coverage only further enflamed an already tense situation by giving the kidnappers the attention they were after. Pearl was eventually beheaded in a gruesome video that was shown too many times on too many outlets.
In a beautiful and insightful essay published on the five-year anniversary of his son’s murder, Pearl’s father wrote about why stories of kidnapped and murdered journalists strike such a cord with the American public.
“When an unarmed journalist is killed,” he wrote, “we are reminded of both the freedoms that we treasure in our society, and how vulnerable we all are to forces that threaten those freedoms.”
But despite the draw of such stories, it’s important that, in order to avoid a situation similar to Daniel Pearl’s, we limit our discussions of Richard Engel to hopes of his safe return and refrain from engaging in any way with any potential hostile parties. It’s especially hard for journalists to turn away from a story like this, since it hits so close to home for many, but that’s all the more reason to turn off the drive for a scoop and focus on the concern for another human being’s safety.