“No one told me anything that indicated a specific, or even general, threat to Engel’s safety,” wrote Gawker editor John Cooke in defense of his post on the kidnapping. “No one said, ‘If you report this, then we know, or suspect, that X, Y, or Z may happen.”

Most journalists, many of whom had sharply criticized Cook after he defied the request, weren’t convinced.

“Gawker took a lot of grief for that, and I think rightly so,” said CPJ’s Smyth. “It’s like, ‘Well, there’s no evidence that it would put him at risk.’ There’s no evidence that it wouldn’t put him at risk, either. You’ve got to err on the side of caution.”

But what’s the side of caution when you don’t have any information to go by? On January 2, more than six weeks after James Foley disappeared, his family decided to go public, pleading with his captors for any information about their son. The next day, in a news conference outside their snowy New Hampshire home, a somber John and Diane Foley were asked what had happened to make them change their minds about releasing the news.

“We don’t have any information,” answered Diane Foley. “It’s been six weeks.”

That was January. Nearly four months after the Foleys went public—and more than 150 days after the kidnapping—James Foley remains unaccounted for. His parents are still seeking information about their son. At least four other journalists are known to be missing in Syria.

 

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Trevor Bach is a student at Columbia's Journalism School