Media role in hostage-taking raises the question of timing

New London - When Richard J. Shenkman took his ex-wife hostage in his South Windsor home Tuesday and demanded a media blackout, The Day and other news organizations in the state were forced into a rapid series of decisions they don't often have to make.

The media faced a scenario in which their actions might affect the outcome, as Shenkman had threatened to blow up his house and kill his ex-wife if the media didn't meet his demands.

Newspapers in particular were thrust into a new situation: Editors always have made decisions on what to publish, but with the advent of newspaper Web sites, they now have to decide when to publish.

The print media can in many ways look to broadcast media for guidance, said Kelly McBride, an ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism resource and training center in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"One of the questions you've got to ask is, what is the value of covering the hostage situation live?" McBride said during a phone interview on Wednesday. "What's the journalistic value of providing your audience with live information on the hostage situation, which is an absolutely different question than asking whether you should cover it at all."

Without a public safety threat or massive public disruption, McBride said, "It's really not much more than, 'We want to let people know what's going on.' "

She later added: "If there's no journalistic purpose or there's a very small journalistic purpose to covering it live, I would say minimal or no coverage is always warranted. Then you're not in a position of changing your approach because some criminal asks you to."

A delay in posting live news is different from an extended media blackout, McBride pointed out. McBride recently chastised The New York Times for engineering a seven-month blackout when one of its reporters was kidnapped in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The Day's editors had initially agreed to a police request to wait, reasoning they would buy time to learn more about the situation.

But the newspaper suddenly faced a more intense and dramatic decision: Shenkman called Day reporter Karen Florin and told the newspaper directly that he would kill his ex-wife, Nancy P. Tyler, if the paper posted a breaking news alert on its Web site.

Reporter's judgment
a factor in decision

That direct contact with Shenkman made the paper's decision easier, editors said.

"I think talking to Karen (Florin) helped make the decision because she was dealing with this firsthand and talking to Shenkman, and she thought he was serious," Managing Editor Timothy Cotter said. "She was the most adamant, I think, that we do not publish (immediately)."

Still, Florin had become emotionally involved, visibly shaken at being forced into a dual role of negotiator and journalist. Cotter and Lisa McGinley, The Day's assistant managing editor, nonetheless felt that Florin's judgment was clear.

"When she got that phone call, she had two years of experience with how he behaves, and she's often worried that he would do violence," said McGinley, referring to Florin's coverage of Shenkman's 2007 arrest for allegedly burning down a summer house the couple owned in Niantic and her coverage of their divorce proceedings. Florin also covered the two when they were still married and worked in public relations for the Eastern Pequot Tribe approximately five years ago.

"As emotional as she might have felt at the moment she also had a long familiarity with this whole thing," McGinley said.

Editors decided Florin could not write the main story, however, as she had instead become a part of it.

Some media outlets also wrestled with the knowledge that others were publishing and updating the story throughout the early afternoon.

McBride said others' actions shouldn't influence a media outlet's decision.

"If we continually do that, we will find ourselves in a position where our standards are sort of the lowest-common-denominator standards," she said, adding later: "I think there should be a really high threshold for not publishing something. If you can justify not publishing something, then you should stick to your guns."

The Day's executive editor, Timothy Dwyer, said its competitors' decisions did not factor into The Day's decision about when to post the news.

"If we're standing on principle and saying we're not going to do it because we don't want to put her life in danger," Dwyer said, "and at that point, two or three people have it up, does the principle change (when) five people have it up?"

Channel 3 news waited more than four hours to post information on its Web site, according to news director Dana Neves, who said the station determined there was no large public disruption and no "pressing need" to go on the air or put the information online.

It finally posted information to its Web site, she said, partly because the station had started to receive e-mails and inquiries from the public about the situation, and because residents were being evacuated.

Neves said broadcast media doesn't go by hard and fast rules, but it usually abides by certain guidelines: Don't show a live scene that would tip off a criminal to where law enforcement is stationed, and don't go live if doing so puts law enforcement in a "precarious position."

Interim Editor Naedine Hazell declined Wednesday to elaborate on The Hartford Courant's decision to keep its story online, reiterating the points it made in a statement issued Tuesday that the newspaper felt it had no context to the demands and "made the decision we made given the information we had."

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez and Police Chief Daryl Roberts sent a letter to the Courant on Wednesday criticizing the newspaper's decision, specifically its declining to take the story off its Web site when Shenkman said he would blow up the house if the story weren't off by 2:30 p.m.

Perez and Roberts said in the letter that contrary to the Courant's reporting that it couldn't take the story down because of technical issues, top editors had instead told police it "would not take the story down as other news outlets were reporting on the incident and it would set a precedent."

It ended with: "The courage, restraint and training of the police officers and public safety personnel involved ended this volatile situation without loss of human life. We are not sure that in a similar situation if the Courant took the same stance it took yesterday the outcome would be as favorable."

Cotter, The Day's managing editor, said neither newspaper was right or wrong.

"While I think we did the right thing, I don't think the Courant did the wrong thing," Cotter said, noting that the Courant was in a somewhat different situation, being asked to take down information it had already posted, while The Day had not yet posted the news.

"They had meetings and conversations on what they should do, they took it seriously, they took into account the factors they thought were important and they made a decision. I don't think it's a case of us doing the right thing and other people doing the wrong thing. I just feel really comfortable in what we did."

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