Growing role of reporters in hostage crises

Jorge Quiroga, Bella English, and Bob Berkowitz are professional journalists who have more in common than dedication to their craft. All have been involved in mediating disputes between rebellious prisoners and corrections officials in the last five months. In each case, the lives of human hostages were at stake. Each of the incidents ended peacefully.

Last October Ms. English, a New York Daily News reporter, spent two days as a negotiator helping to secure the safe release of six hostages held by a hardened criminal at King's County Hospital in Brooklyn. The hostages were seized after the inmate botched an escape attempt.

Mr. Quiroga, a reporter for WCVB-TV in Boston, was summoned at 2 a.m. one day in late December to Massachusetts' Walpole state prison. He was asked to take down and read aloud - so that television cameras could record it - a statement of grievances from a Spanish-speaking inmate who was holding a woman employee at knife-point.

Mr. Berkowitz, a New York-based ABC-TV correspondent, led a news team into Ossining state prison earlier this month, where inmates were holding 18 guards hostage. The prisoners had asked that their negotiations with prison authorities be recorded for broadcast and that their demands be replayed on an evening newscast.

It is traditional in journalism that outside parties not be allowed to dictate the content of news columns or broadcasts. Otherwise, a paper's or station's independence and objectivity are compromised. But in practice this tradition is breaking down.

Moreover, the phenomenon of reporters being summoned to prisons, jails, and mental hospitals to help settle disputes is of growing concern to the news industry. It is happening with increasing frequency, and news executives worry that there may be no decisive way to end it. There have been reports, such as those after the Ossining revolt, that inmates in large, overcrowded prisons can take them over almost at will.

Of several experts interviewed, none could recall an instance in which a journalist refused to participate in a hostage negotiation after being asked.

Says Ernie Schultz, executive vice-president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA): ''You should resist such requests to the limit of your ability. You're a journalist, not a trained negotiator. But if an inmate threatens to blow a hostage's head off, then you react as a human being.''

''I would do it again,'' Ms. English says, ''but only under strict guidelines. Reporters who get involved don't realize the gravity of the situation.''

''These inmates just want attention, and they've learned that they can use the press to get it,'' adds Richard Cole, dean of the School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina. ''It doesn't seem to me to be right that a reporter become involved, but perhaps not to be involved would be worse.''

Dean Cole, president of the American Association of Schools and Departments of Journalism, says the issue is fast becoming a topic of discussion in the college classroom, where many of the reporters of tomorrow are in training.

Neither the RTNDA nor the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) has scheduled sessions on the subject for its national convention this year. But executives of both groups say they won't be surprised if it becomes an important topic of conversation.

Michael Gartner, president of the Des Moines Register and chairman of the ASNE Freedom of Information Committee, says his newspaper has no policy on allowing editors or reporters to mediate disputes between inmates and corrections officials.

''It's a thorny issue when the press becomes hostage,'' he says. ''Everything has to be ad hoc. There is no pat answer to any one situation. Our only policy is that our news columns are not open to the personal use of others.''

But news director Fred Heckman of station WIBC in Indianapolis concedes that he taped and allowed to be played over the air the grievances of a mentally disturbed man who had taken the manager of a loan company hostage at gunpoint in February 1977. Eventually, Mr. Heckman himself became directly involved in the captor's surrender to local police and the FBI.

''I think I lost some credibility for a while - until people realized what I had done,'' he says.

Quiroga's reading of the Walpole inmate's grievances also was shown on WCVB newscasts before the drama ended.

Heckman and Ms. English say they felt ''used'' not only by the perpetrators but also by the police in their respective dramas.

''Of course I was used,'' Ms. English complains. ''(But) from their point of view, what do they care if your objectivity is at stake?''

Reporters who become involved in captor-hostage disputes do so at no physical risk to themselves whenever possible; prison authorities and the police see to that. Moreover, inmates who seize control of jails or prisons usually do so not to gain their freedom but to force their grievances to be addressed in a public forum.

Ms. English says she never stood face to face with the inmate at Kings County Hospital, but via a television monitor was forced to listen to his profane ravings and to watch at one point while he played a game of Russian roulette with himself, using a handgun taken from a guard.

''I was very uncomfortable in the role,'' she says. ''We [reporters] have nothing on our side except time - and talk.''

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