Case Study: Issues in Mass Communication
Executive Summary: Media coverage of hostage situations borders on sensationalism and does not help to diffuse situations but rather inflames them and can lead to less positive outcomes than if there were not real-time coverage of these situations. Many examples can be found where hostage situations dominate news media cycles and may as a result draw these situations out, encourage more behavior like them, and may even affect the overall outcome of hostage situations in a negative way.
Description: In one specific case from 2004, journalists were engaged in a debate about whether or not their news coverage of hostage situations in Iraq were or could be responsible for more escalating acts of depravity. In an article published by David Smith for The Guardian, there is discussion and introspection being called for as journalists try to decide whether to give terrorist demands and videos air time on national and international news media outlets. Roger Mosey of the BBC is quoted as saying, " The terrorists clearly want to lead the international news agenda, so there is a danger they will commit worse atrocities to get more coverage. There has to be a debate among journalists. It is no longer enough to say these images will reach the public domain and therefore we have an excuse for showing them." (Smith 2004). The call to reexamine ethical reporting practices comes after a British hostage was recorded begging government officials to save his life and the hostage's family issued similar pleas to the captor.
Problem: The problem herein lies that coverage and broadcasting of these messages may cause terrorist and radical groups to engage in more heinous acts as a way of spreading their messages of hate and intolerance.
Data Analysis: In several instances of hostage situations, news media coverage of the crisis can be explosive and far reaching. For instance, the coverage of a hostage situation at a Trader Joe's in Los Angeles spanned several social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, etc.) as well as the different news media outlets in the area and shut down large swaths of traffic and even airspace in the Los Angeles area (Gaydos 2018). While it can't be stated conclusively that this negatively affected the outcome of the hostage situation, it is possible that this served to drag out the situation, distracted officers from doing their job, and resulted in the death of an employee of the Trader Joe's due to crossfire from the LAPD. In another recent case, this time in Tacoma, WA, police responded to a hostage situation in which a heavily armored suspect took a hostage, was shot, and apprehended. In this case, the police department's Twitter was used primarily to inform citizens of affected areas and update closures for traffic (K5 News 2018). This demonstrates a more adequate use and response of the police and news media.
Key Decision Criteria: Ultimately, the criteria used for decision making should be based on whether the coverage has potential to increase negative behaviors and weighed again the potential good it can do for individuals in the community and the global community at large.
- Recommendations: Yale University published guidelines for those involved in hostage situations, to help keep individuals safe, which are worth mentioning in any discussion regarding hostages. Some of these suggestions include remaining calm and polite, resisting the urge to argue or escape unless absolutely certain of safety, and avoiding engaging in political or ideological debate with captors (Yale 2018). To help aid in the decision making of journalist and news media outlets, the Radio Television Digital News Association also publishes guidelines for journalist as they attempt to make heads or tails of what is appropriate to cover. There are numerous suggestions and methods for journalists when working to report, especially during live coverage, and the most overarching of these is " 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." (Steele 2018)
Action and Implementation: In my opinion, there should be a globally established guideline for how and when to report situations such as hostage or terrorist situations. While this is ultimately hard to enforce, if we can educate and inform journalists about the possible ramifications of their actions, it can help to curb negative outcomes and endings.
Gaydos, R. (2018, July 24). Trader Joe's employee, who died in hostage situation, killed by LAPD gunfire, chief says. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from http://www.foxnews.com/us/2018/07/24/trade-joes-employee-who-died-in-hostage-situation-killed-by-lapd-gunfire-chief-says.html
'Heavily armed' suspect in custody after Tacoma hostage situation. (2018, September 07). Retrieved September 8, 2018, from https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/heavily-armed-suspect-in-custody-after-tacoma-hostage-situation/281-591723818
Smith, D. (2004, September 26). Concerns over media coverage of crises. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2004/sep/26/pressandpublishing.Iraqandthemedia
Steele, B. (n.d.). Shooting / Hostage Situation. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from https://rtdna.org/content/shooting_hostage_situation
Yale University. (n.d.). Hostage Situation. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from https://emergency.yale.edu/be-prepared/hostage-situation