Page 2 of 2   <      

Journalism's Rising Risk Factor

Jill Carroll, a Christian Science Monitor reporter, was released in April after Iraqi abductors had held her for 82 days following an ambush that killed her driver.

And that list doesn't even include a harrowing series of close calls in Iraq over the past two years. New York Times correspondent John Burns and several colleagues were abducted and blindfolded but released after eight hours. CNN correspondent Michael Holmes barely escaped death in an attack on his press caravan that killed two of the network's Iraqi employees. Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner managed to fend off an attempted abduction by men who tried to push her into a van.

The spate of kidnappings also creates a dilemma for other news outlets, since heavy coverage could undermine what are invariably delicate negotiations. After Centanni and Wiig were seized, Ailes called top news executives at the other networks and urged them to exercise restraint.

"At the very beginning, we asked for and received the cooperation of our competitors -- who ceased to be competitors and just became colleagues -- in not overplaying the story," Moody said.

As the ordeal dragged on, and Centanni's brother and Wiig's wife made televised appeals for their freedom, Fox made no further attempt to minimize the coverage.

Still, the kidnapping received no mention on the CBS, ABC or NBC nightly news until the first hostage video was released Wednesday. The relative paucity of coverage, compared with the intensive chronicling of Carroll's captivity, may have reflected the fact that there are many more journalists in Iraq, and that the war in that country is a focus of far greater debate in the United States than the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Wartime or not, television also tends to play up kidnappings involving young women, which often become cable melodramas.

Violence isn't the only hazard facing foreign correspondents these days. Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was charged with espionage in Sudan on Saturday, three weeks after being detained in the war-ravaged province of Darfur. Salopek was on a freelance assignment for National Geographic.

Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinksi told her paper that Salopek is "one of the most accomplished and admired journalists of our time. He is not a spy." Chris Johns, the Geographic's editor in chief, said in a statement that Salopek was preparing an article on sub-Saharan Africa and "had no agenda other than to fairly and accurately report on the region."

Salopek entered Sudan without a visa and now realizes that was a mistake, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who visited him last week, told the Tribune.

On Friday, a Chinese court sentenced Zhao Yan, a New York Times researcher in Beijing, to three years in prison on a fraud charge. That was good news, in a sense, because Zhao was acquitted on more serious charges of leaking state secrets. He was detained in 2004 after a Times article accurately predicted that former president Jiang Zemin would give up his last Communist Party post.

It is not difficult to see that such cases are another form of warfare against foreign correspondents, carried out by repressive governments that are determined to chill aggressive reporting by outsiders.

In the past two weeks, television networks have embarrassed themselves with wild, speculative and unrelenting coverage of the JonBenet Ramsey case, based on little more than a shaky confession from a creepy character whose own relatives say he was not in Colorado when the 6-year-old girl was killed a decade ago. The kidnapping of Centanni and Wiig, and the charges in China and the Sudan, are a reminder that there is another side to journalism, one that relies on courage and dedication rather than hype and sensationalism.

<       2

© 2006 The Washington Post Company