Darts and Laurels

News outlets in Connecticut grapple with a hostage crisis

It was the kind of ethical dilemma that classroom case studies are made of, but the potential con-
sequences of this decision were all too real: a deranged man kidnaps his ex-wife from a parking garage and holds her hostage in their home, prompting a massive emergency response and a neighborhood evacuation. The man demands that authorities arrange a media blackout, and when a newspaper reports the breaking story on its Web site, he issues another demand: take the story down in a matter of minutes or I’ll blow this place apart. What do you do?

That was the situation in the suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut, on July 7, with Richard Shenkman, a sixty-year-old former advertising executive, as the hostage-taker, his ex-wife Nancy Tyler as the hostage, and the Hartford Courant on the line as the calls began to flood in just minutes before the 2:30 p.m. deadline Shenkman gave—from the police, the mayor’s office, a reporter on the scene. After some hurried
deliberations, the paper made its call: the story would stay.

As it turned out, Shenkman didn’t have explosives in the house, and while he did have a loaded gun, he didn’t use it as the deadline passed. That evening, Tyler escaped. Later, Shenkman set fire to the house and was arrested by police. But the questions remain: Did the Courant do the right thing? How much should journalists worry about the potential consequences of the stories they publish? And how much weight should they give a request from authorities to pull a story when time or other constraints make it difficult to assess those consequences?

There is disagreement on all these points, but we believe that journalists do bear some responsibility for the consequences of the stories they publish. Freedom of the press comes with obligations. Adopting an absolutist perspective, in which the right to publish factual material renders other concerns immaterial, is simply a way to avoid grappling with the hard choices those obligations give rise to.

The question of how much weight to give to an official request to withhold publication is especially tricky, and the news outlets covering the hostage crisis dealt with it in different ways. Both WFSB, a local TV news outlet, and The Day of New London—which itself became a part of the story when Shenkman placed repeated calls to Day reporter Karen Florin during the standoff—were asked by police to hold their stories. Both agreed to do so temporarily—WFSB for more than four hours, The Day, which also received a demand directly from Shenkman in the course of his conversations with Florin, for about two. But both outlets independently decided, after the deadline Shenkman set for the Courant had passed without incident, to publish what they had. The Day based its decision on direct knowledge of Shenkman’s words and his character, gleaned from Florin’s conversations with him (and her coverage of his protracted divorce case), and on its judgment of the credibility of his threats. WFSB decided that the story had become a broader public-safety issue. Neither outlet took refuge in a bright-line rule; both wrestled with the tension between public interest in the story and the fear that coverage could exacerbate the crisis or endanger lives. When they had reason to believe that the balance was in favor of publishing the story to their Web sites, they did so. For that, they deserve a laurel—with special recognition to Florin, the Day reporter who handled a challenging situation with grace and savvy.

Which brings us back to the Courant. The paper’s situation was different in several key ways from WFSB and The Day’s. It was asked not to hold a story but to unpublish one—something no journalist is inclined to do lightly. And it was not in contact with Shenkman, so it had no quick way to independently assess what the authorities were saying.

But given what we know—which is limited, because Courant editors were the only actors in this drama who refused to speak to us—we believe the paper should have removed the story from its site. To a good question—For how long?—we would say: until editors had done all they could to satisfy themselves that publishing the story would not endanger lives. Professional tenets such as the one against pulling a story are important, but they are not absolute. It is possible that, as the Courant said in a statement the next day, “The information given to us was incomplete and the level of imminent danger unclear.” But on this point, we find Jonathan Kellogg, the executive editor of the Waterbury Republican-American, bluntly instructive. Thirty years ago, when Kellogg was a young reporter, he placed a call to the site of an ongoing hostage situation. He later learned that the hostage, who answered the phone and asked Kellogg not to call again, was killed by his captors. When a human life is at stake, says Kellogg, who now runs ethics seminars for journalists, everything else “is just a lot of blather.”

Given the complexity of the situation and the limits of our own knowledge, it seems inappropriate to give the Courant a dart. Still, though the paper reported on its editors’ decision at the time and subsequently released a statement, it has erred by otherwise refusing to talk about that decision—to us or to anyone else. This is contrary to the ethos of transparency that all news organizations have an interest in. More important, it deprives other journalists of the opportunity to learn from the Courant’s experience—to become better prepared for the time when they face an ethical dilemma, on deadline, that they might never have anticipated.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.