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.