This is an incredibly insightful article on something that was in the forefront of the tragically concluded hostage drama involving the Hong Kong nationals. I suggest you read it because it’s something that everyone needs to know, whether you’re a media practioner or not. For the full article, click HERE.
Inasmuch as I may have my personal opinions on the matter, I wouldn’t have any idea on the rules of engagement as far as the police are concerned. Many say they were incompetent, others argue that they did the best they could under their much compromised position. But on the part of media, which we are a part of to a lesser degree, I very much feel the need to weigh in on the urgency of redefining our respective roles in situations like this. That’s why I find this article fascinating because many of these guidelines were either unknown by may mediamen or simply ignored. Since I assume you read the full article, let me just focus on some salient points.
“Always assume that the hostage taker, gunman, or terrorist has access to the reporting. “
“Avoid describing with words or showing with still photography and video any information that could divulge the tactics or positions of SWAT team members.”
Early on, we already knew that Rolando Mendoza had access to both radio and TV reports on what was happening. So it’s safe to assume that all media outlets know that whatever they throw out there could potentially be heard or watched by the hostage-taker. And yet the blow-by-blow reports of everything that was happening could be seen and heard over any media outlet. That’s why now, congress is studying a new law requiring media blackouts during hostage situations. Even P-Noy told the media that if he ordered a blackout, he would be accused of censoring media or curtailing press freedom. He alluded once again to the Peninsula debacle, where the media refused to leave ground zero, on the basis of press freedom, allegedly hampering the military’s efforts to storm the place. I remember when I was in Seattle, there was a hostage situation that was broadcast. Everyone reported on it, but there was no footage, no details, no live coverage until AFTER the situation was resolved. It was only then that the TV stations aired all the footage they took while it was happening, after the broadcast could no longer affect the outcome of the crisis.
“Fight the urge to become a player in any standoff, hostage situation, or terrorist incident. Journalists should become personally involved only as a last resort and with the explicit approval of top news management and the consultation of trained hostage negotiators on the scene.”
Stone stone in the sky, if you’re hit, don’t mad. Let’s face it, there are mediamen who exude grace and class whenever they cover any high-tension situation, regardless of their stress level. Think Cheche Lazaro. But there are also those who exude the opposite, and epal their way into the situation, becoming part of the tableau, participating, instead of merely chronicling the events as they unfold. Many personalities have become so much larger than their actual role as media, that they become the news, instead of merely documenting it. Nowadays, many media personalities would give an arm and a leg to somehow have a part in the drama, no matter how little their expertise in such matters, just to outscoop the competition.
“Strongly resist the temptation to telephone a gunman or hostage taker. Journalists generally are not trained in negotiation techniques, and one wrong question or inappropriate word could jeopardize someone’s life. Furthermore, just calling in could tie up phone lines or otherwise complicate communication efforts of the negotiators.”
Just now I watched on TV that in the middle of the hostage drama, at least one TV station had a reporter talk to Mendoza on the phone. Regardless of what they talked about, that was really a risky move. When you have multiple people, including those outside of the negotiating panel, talking to a disturbed, highly-stressed, and in some cases possibly near-deranged hostage-taker, you increase the chances of agitating an already unstable personality to a dangerous tipping point. Regardless of whether or not you aired the phone conversation, it was a possible monkey wrench in an extremely delicate negotiation. One wrong word could spell the difference between resolution and tragedy. It would really have been most prudent to leave the talking to the actual negotiators. Imagine if all news outfits did the same?
“Challenge any gut reaction to “go live” from the scene of a hostage-taking crisis, unless there are strong journalistic reasons for a live, on-the-scene report. Things can go wrong very quickly in a live report, endangering lives or damaging negotiations. Furthermore, ask if the value of a live, on-the-scene report is really justifiable compared to the harm that could occur.”
In this competitive and cuthroat day and age, many broadcast journalists actually welcome being in the middle of any newsworthy crossfire, to get a leg up on the competition, or in some cases to make a name for themselves. There is no such thing as “challenging any gut reaction to go live”. If there is a hostage crisis, ALL media outlets will have at least one team to cover it live. Don’t get me wrong, I was GLUED to the television, eating up every morsel of the events as they happened. As a consumer, if it’s available, we’ll lap it up. But as a media man, you wonder what all that information could entail to a touch-and-go situation where lives hang in the balance. I guess it’s up to congress to decide that.
“Be very cautious in any reporting on the medical condition of hostages until after a crisis is concluded. Also, be cautious when interviewing hostages or released hostages while a crisis continues.”
Just reading the tweets during the crisis, you’ll see just how much chaos unreliable information can cause. First the bus driver said everyone was dead, which spread like wildfire. It wasn’t until after the final gunfire that we discovered many survivors. But that’s just it, all sorts of information, some confirmed, many unconfirmed, are released for public consumption, even to the utility of the hostage-taker. He can very well plan his next move depending on what he watches on TV. At the very moment of the assault, the police’s positions and movements, from all angles of the bus, was broadcast as they tried with futility to launch a surprise attack. If the TV was still on, Mendoza would have known EXACTLY how many policemen there were, where they were positioned, and what they were about to do. The police on the other hand, had ZERO information about what was happening inside the bus.
“Exercise care when interviewing family members or friends of those involved in standoff situations. Make sure the interview legitimately advances the story for the public and is not simply conducted for the shock value of the emotions conveyed or as a conduit for the interviewee to transmit messages to specific individuals.”
Many consider the arrest of the brother, Gregorio Mendoza, as the point where things irretrievably took a turn for the worse. It was after the brother resisted arrest, splashed all over our TV’s, that Mendoza fired his first shots. Many opined that he witnessed what was happening and further agitated his already turbulent disposition. On the part of the police, many find that the timing of the arrest was severely misplaced. On he part of the media, many find that had they not broadcast the arrest, had it been carried out under the radar, then Mendoza might not have been pushed off the emotional edge.
Understandably when this much sh*t hits the fan, fingers will be pointed. But maybe more than blame, there should really be a thorough post-mortem on what went wrong. Obviously this will include identifying the mistakes and who made them. With the exception of mistakes that warrant legal repercussions, it’s not so much to punish, but to improve. True, the police assault could have been leagues more efficient, but should they be punished for bungling the rescue? Maybe each one should find improvement in their own backyard. The police should beef up their training and equipment, learn from more advance police forces from abroad, and read up on the latest studies on hostage situations. On media’s part, maybe the law should redefine what our role is in situations like this BEFORE the need arises. We should know the boundaries and limitations of our so-called press freedom. When should we forge on? When do we back off? These are questions that will merit many debates before they are resolved. But whatever the outcome may be, it will dictate how future crises like these will play out.