Oversimplifications in hostage tragedy

Azada-Palacios is an instructor at the Department of Philosophy of the Ateneo de Manila University. She has engaged in media work and research in applied ethics. This piece was published in the September 6, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

In the aftermath of Monday’s (August 23, 2010) hostage-taking tragedy, a TV station asked its viewers the question: should there be a media blackout during hostage crises?

The question grossly oversimplifies the issue. The public outcry is not for a total news blackout, but for media outfits to exercise greater restraint in choosing which details to air and when to air them.

The best way, in fact, for media organizations to avoid further legislated media regulation, is for them to prove to the public that their self-regulatory mechanisms are sufficient.

ABS-CBN’s statement, released on Thursday, enumerated ways in which their news team exercised self-restraint. However, of the nine examples they gave, five of them are not examples of self-regulation, but rather, of either complying with the law (e.g., not tampering with police evidence), or following commands from the police. Whether or not news organizations should follow the law and heed police’s instructions is not at issue; that should be the minimum expected of all media groups in such situations.

In contrast to ABS-CBN’s statement, the Poynter Institute, an American journalism school, published on its website in 1999 a list of self-regulating guidelines for journalists covering a developing law enforcement action, such as a hostage-taking situation. Among the guidelines are for journalists to “always assume that the hostage taker … has access to the reporting,” to avoid releasing information “that could divulge the tactics or positions of SWAT team members,” to “strongly resist the temptation to telephone a gunman or hostage taker,” and to “have a plan ready for how to respond” should a hostage taker call a newsroom. Links to these guidelines quickly spread online last week.

In response, Maria Ressa, ABS-CBN’s head of news and current affairs, argued that the Poynter guidelines are culture-bound, and that our country’s context is different from that of the Western audience for which the guidelines were written. Be that is it may, the ethical principle behind the guidelines are universal. In a hostage situation in any culture, the safety of the hostages should be paramount. When lives are at stake, media institutions ought to err on the side of too much rather than too little caution. News organizations can keep the public informed without jeopardizing the safety of the hostages or aggravating the situation.

Moreover, the culture-boundedness of the Poynter guidelines does not exempt local organizations from the responsibility of making their own guidelines and assuring that these are followed. The argument has been made that in the heat of the moment, it is difficult for journalists and media executives to decide how best to regulate their own coverage. However, this argument simply affirms the need for pre-established guidelines. With such guidelines, the journalist and the media executive need not spend too much time in an internal struggle over what to report or what to air. They just have to comply with rules they have already drafted.

It is unclear whether news organizations had any clear guidelines prior to this incident, but it is clear now, more than ever, that such guidelines are necessary. GMA News has promised to revise their rules for situations where the public or their personnel are at risk. ABS-CBN is inviting its colleagues in the broadcast industry to undertake an industry review. These steps are welcome, but they are also long overdue. Journalistic behavior during crisis situations were debated in the aftermath of the 1990 earthquake, the 2002 hostage-taking incident at a Pasay bus station, the Ducat hostage-taking incident in 2007 and the Manila Peninsula siege also in 2007.

Finally, some media practitioners, including opinion columnists, have criticized the public for blaming the media. It is not the media’s fault, they argue, but the police’s, as it was they who failed to control the media. Again, this is an oversimplification of the issue. No reasonable person is laying the blame entirely on the media. Of course, the PNP (Philippine National Police) and the civil government also made costly missteps. And of course, most of the responsibility rests with Mendoza himself.

The question, however, which all people involved ought to ask themselves is: what, in my capacity, could I have done at the time to make the situation better? And did I do it?

Only if all of us learn to be accountable for our actions, even when we are only partially responsible for the outcome of a situation, can we prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.

No comments yet.