Before foreign correspondent Richard Engel and a group of journalists escaped their captors in Syria, NBC asked other news outlets to refrain from reporting on their situation. The outlets who honored NBC’s request did so out of an abundance of caution; the Poynter Institute, a prominent journalism-education group, withheld a report so as not to increase the danger Engel and his colleagues faced. The website Gawker, which opted to stop honoring the media blackout, justified publishing its story by noting that NBC provided only vague information about the threat.
News outlets must balance their duty to report news and that of protecting one of their own. But in this case, heeding NBC’s request — made in the name of safety — was the only prudent choice, not least because Syria has been the deadliest place for journalists in the world.
Engel and his team were very fortunate not to be harmed. They were subjected to mock executions and only escaped during a firefight between Syrian rebels and the journalists’ captors. They were also fortunate to have a big organization like NBC to safeguard their interests; hundreds of freelance journalists in global hotspots lack such protections. Their safety must be an ongoing concern for the entire journalistic profession, the US government, and international organizations.
Of the 67 journalists killed while reporting in 2012, 28 were in Syria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That alone should have been a solemn reminder for news editors — and the broader public — that reporters are risking their lives when covering war, particularly when they’re in Syria today.