What To Do in a Hostage Situation
THE DUCAT hostage-taking crisis is a coverage replete with lessons. Members of the press would do well to remember them in order to avoid repeating mistakes which, at best, created confusion among the audience and at worst, led to tragedy.
Early this year, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsi-bility (CMFR) published a book, “The CMFR Ethics Manual: A Values Approach to News Media Ethics,” which contains some guidelines on covering various situations. Here are some excerpts from the guidelines, which may well apply in a crisis situation like the Ducat hostage-taking incident:
During a crisis, broadcast reporters need to tone down their delivery, so as not to contribute to public anxiety. Updates and warnings serve their purpose better when issued in a calm and restrained voice.
Crisis coverage must be devoid of posturing, hero-playing, and other kinds of grandstanding on the part of the media. Journalists should also guard against the use of media time or space by those pushing for their individual and personal interests, among them politicians eager to get into the limelight. Such gimmickry can get on the nerves and add to the stress felt by victims. They can also lead to the misuse of the media in the self-serving efforts of unscrupulous individuals who are trying to take advantage of human suffering to advance their political and other interests.
Terrorism has been defined as the indiscriminate use of violence to achieve political ends. Violence is intended to send a message of terrorist invincibility and power via the media. In their book Terrorism and the Media (1992), David Paletz and Alex Schmid (eds.) counsel the media to:
> Provide no live coverage of terrorists, which gives them an unedited propaganda platform.
> Avoid inflammatory catch-words and phrases.
> Report any demands without propaganda and rhetoric.
> Avoid making themselves part of the story.
> Avoid making telephone calls to terrorists
> Refrain from doing anything that could endanger the lives of hostages.
Hostage-taking is usually a terrorist activity. But this can be engaged in by common criminals as well, and by political groups. Bob Steele, director of the Poynter Institute’s Ethics Program, advises journalists covering hostage-taking incidents and other crises to:
> Always assume that the hostage-taker, gunman, or terrorist has access to the reporting. (What is reported via television may compro-mise the safety of hostages, ongoing negotiations or rescue plans.)
> Avoid describing with words or showing with still photography and video any information that could divulge the tactics or positions of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team members.
> Fight the urge to become a player in any standoff, hostage situation, or terrorist incident. Journalists should become personally involved only as a last resort and with the explicit approval of the top news management and the consultation of trained hostage negotiators on the scene.
> Be forthright with viewers, listeners, or readers about why certain information is being withheld if security reasons are involved.
> Seriously weigh the benefits to the public of what information might be given out versus what potential harm that information might cause. This is especially important in the live reporting of an ongoing situation.
> Strongly resist the temptation to telephone a gunman or hostage-taker. Journalists generally are not trained in negotiation techniques, and one wrong question or inappropriate word could jeopardize someone’s life. Furthermore, just calling in could tie up phone lines or otherwise complicate communication efforts of the negotiators.
> Notify authorities imme-diately if a hostage taker or terrorist calls the newsroom. Also, have a plan ready on how to respond.
> Challenge any gut reaction to “go live” from the scene of a hostage-taking crisis, unless there are strong journalistic reasons for a live, on-the-scene report. Things can go wrong very quickly in a live report, endangering lives or damaging negotiations. Furthermore, ask if the value of a live, on-the-scene report is really justifiable compared to the harm that could occur.
> Give no information, factual or speculative, about a hostage-taker’s mental condition, state of mind, or reasons for actions while a standoff is in progress. The value of such information to the audience is limited, and the possibility of such characterizations exacerba-ting an already dangerous situation (is) quite real.
> Give no analyses or comments on a hostage-taker’s or terrorist’s demands. As bizarre or ridiculous or even legi-timate such demands may be, it is important that negotiators take all demands seriously.
> Keep news helicopters out of the area where the standoff is happening, as their noise can create communication problems for negotiators, and their presence could scare a gunman to deadly action.
> Do not report information obtained from police scanners. If law enforce-ment personnel and negotiators are compro-mised in their communi-cations, their attempts to resolve a crisis are greatly complicated.
> Be very cautious in any reporting on the medical condition of the hostages until after a crisis is concluded. Also, be cautious when inter-viewing hostages or released hostages while a crisis continues.
> Exercise care when inter-viewing family members or friends involved in standoff situations. Make sure the interview legiti-mately advances the story for the public and is not simply conducted for the shock value of the emotions conveyed or as a conduit for the interviewee to transmit messages to specific individuals.
> Go beyond the basic story of the hostage-taking or standoff to report on the larger issues behind the story, be it the how and why of what happened, reports on the preparation and execution of the SWAT team, or the issues related to the incident.
In covering a pending raid or law enforcement action, journalists are advised to be extremely cautious to not compromise the secrecy of official planning and execution. If staking out a location where a raid will occur or if accompanying officers, reporters and photographers should demonstrate great caution in how they act, where they go and what clues they might inadvertently give that might compromise the execution of the raid. They should check and double-check planning efforts.—Hector Bryant L. Macale