Guidelines for Covering Hostage-Taking Crises, Prison Uprisings, Terrorist Actions
By Bob Steele Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values
In covering a developing raid or law enforcement action, journalists are advised to:
Be extremely cautious to not compromise the secrecy of officials’ 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.
In covering an ongoing crisis situation, journalists are advised to:
- Always assume that the hostage taker, gunman, or terrorist has access to the reporting.
- Avoid describing with words or showing with still photography and video any information that could divulge the tactics or positions of 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 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 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 immediately if a hostage taker or terrorist calls the newsroom. Also, have a plan ready for 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 exacerbating an already dangerous situation are quite real.
- Give no analyses or comments on a hostage taker’s or terrorist’s demands. As bizarre or ridiculous (or even legitimate) as 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 communications problems for negotiators and their presence could scare a gunman to deadly action.
- Do not report information obtained from police scanners. If law enforcement personnel and negotiators are compromised in their communications, their attempts to resolve a crisis are greatly complicated.
- Be very cautious in any reporting on the medical condition of hostages until after a crisis is concluded. Also, be cautious when interviewing hostages or released hostages while a crisis continues.
- Exercise care when interviewing family members or friends of those involved in standoff situations. Make sure the interview legitimately 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.
Source: Poynter Online