Reporter's Escape From Taliban Spurs Ethics Debate For the seven months New York Times reporter David Rohde was a hostage of the Taliban in Afghanistan, few knew he had been kidnapped. The Times kept the information under wraps and asked other media to do the same. The Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride says she was "astounded" by the media blackout.
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Reporter's Escape From Taliban Spurs Ethics Debate

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Reporter's Escape From Taliban Spurs Ethics Debate

Reporter's Escape From Taliban Spurs Ethics Debate

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

When news came this weekend that New York Times reporter David Rohde had escaped from his Taliban captors, few knew he had even been kidnapped. That's because for the seven months that he and two Afghan colleagues were in the Taliban's hands, the Times kept that information under wraps, and it asked other major news organizations to do the same out of concern for the reporter's safety.

NPR was among some 40 news outlets who did not report on the kidnapping, at the urging of David Rohde's Times colleagues.

I asked Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics to journalists at the Poynter Institute, what she makes of this seven-month-long media blackout.

Ms. KELLY McBRIDE (Ethics Group Leader, Poynter Institute): I'm actually really astounded. First of all, that it even worked, that 40 news organizations could agree on anything.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

Ms. McBRIDE: But it also - I find it a little disturbing because it makes me wonder what else 40 international news organizations have agreed not to tell the public.

BLOCK: But in this case, The New York Times was saying, look, if you publish this, it will jeopardize the life of our reporter and the two other people that he was traveling with who are being held captive. That seems like a really powerful argument to make.

Ms. McBRIDE: And I get that. But if you look at this as a continuum, and at one end of the continuum is you publish everything you know and you endanger the reporter's life; and at the other end of the continuum, you black out all the information, in between those two positions are many, many alternatives where you publish some information, you time the information that you publish, and you put your loyalty to your audience in front of your loyalty to The New York Times or to this particular reporter, but you still minimize the harm to him as an individual.

BLOCK: What do you think the advantage would have been to be reporting on this? If there is some plausible risk of harm, however small, and The New York Times is asking you, as a news organization, not to report it, what's the advantage to reporting it?

Ms. McBRIDE: Well, at the very base level, I think that the public needs to know the risk that journalists take when they report from dangerous areas like Iraq or Afghanistan. Moving up the scale a bit, I think that there are individuals and companies and nonprofit organizations that make decisions based on the latest, best news. And if that latest, best news is not an accurate portrayal of what's going on, their decisions could be faulty ones.

Beyond that, I worry about the long-term consequences. If more and more information is withheld, the public will eventually begin to not trust us. I don't think we do ourselves any favors long term for our credibility when we have a total news blackout on something that's clearly of interest to the public.

BLOCK: There were some blogs that mentioned the kidnappings. Some of those blogs later took the posts down after The Times asked them to. But I read the comment of one blogger, David Tate, who writes a blog called "A Battlefield Tourist."

He said, it is just dangerous ground when journalists get into self-serving censorship when rules for everyone else do not apply to the press. Do you agree with David Tate?

Ms. McBRIDE: I do. I absolutely do. It's almost patronizing to the audience to have a group of elite people decide what I should know and what I shouldn't know.

BLOCK: I guess the question there would be, though, should you be more worried about the audience or should you be more worried about the fate of a reporter and his colleagues who are held in captivity?

Ms. McBRIDE: You know, as tough as the answer to that is, a news organization always has to place its audience first. And what's so scary about this is if it hadn't been a journalist, I wonder if they would have made the decisions that they made.

BLOCK: Well, Kelly McBride, thanks for talking with us today.

Ms. McBRIDE: All right, thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Kelly McBride teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute.

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