The escape of David Rohde, a New York Times reporter captured last November by the Taliban, has today sparked a fiery debate over media censorship in the open source age. At stake is the Times' decision not just to tamp down on any news of Rodhe's kidnapping, but on updates to Rohde's Wikipedia page – a feat that was apparently accomplished with the complicity of Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.
According to Richard Pérez-Peña, a media reporter for the Times, the broadsheet's top brass "believed that publicity would raise Mr. Rohde’s value to his captors as a bargaining chip and reduce his chance of survival." Over a several month period, with Wales leading the charge, Wikipedia editors were asked to scrub Rohde's page of any evidence of the kidnapping, which had been reported by a handful of smaller outlets and blogs.
Wales is quoted as saying he agreed to the Times' requests because no major newspaper had yet reported the capture of Rohde, a former reporter at The Christian Science Monitor. “We were really helped by the fact that it hadn’t appeared in a place we would regard as a reliable source,” Wales told Pérez-Peña. “I would have had a really hard time with it if it had.”
As Dan Murphy wrote in these pages earlier this month, the idea of a media blackout is always controversial. In 2006, for instance, when Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was kidnapped in Iraq, the Monitor was criticized for requesting that the case stay temporarily out of the spotlight. "That effort ended after about two days," Murphy wrote, "with major news outlets saying they could not continue to sit on a significant story."
But the Wikipedia blackout has struck many as especially egregious. Wikipedia, these analysts say, was created as a collaborative project, where a large group of volunteers can share writing and editing privileges. "Anyone is welcome to add information, cross-references, or citations, as long as they do so within Wikipedia's editing policies and to an appropriate standard," reads an introduction posted on Wikipedia.
Among the most vocal critics of the Wikipedia blackout is Kit Eaton, a reporter for Fast Company. Writing today on the magazine's blog, Eaton argues that Wikipedia has permanently damaged its reputation as a "crowd-based and open-access information source":
Wikipedia isn't a traditional media outlet, and therefore has no hard or soft journalistic moral code to abide by, which means it can be more flexible in its actions – and the fact a life was at stake here is a mitigating fact. But Wales' excuse still sounds particularly weak. As a result, the next questions about Wikipedia are: What other news pieces is it hiding? And will users trust in the site as a news source take a hit?
Over at tech blog The Inquisitr, Kim LaCapria arrives at a similar conclusion. "Luckily for Wikipedia, this issue was clearly life or death," LaCapria writes. "But what if it isn’t?... [H]ow can you stop the crowd from releasing possibly harmful information – and should you? If so, when?"
Importantly, LaCapria and Eaton are here addressing Wikipedia not as a traditional news outlet, but as a new media machine – one beholden to an entirely different set of rules than, say, the Monitor. Traditional media rely on a complex, top-down vetting process; new media pushes all information onto the web, and leaves the vetting to the crowd. Under this rejiggered rubric, the Times – which relies on a top-down infrastructure – can feel free to withhold potentially dangerous information. Wikipedia, on the other hand, cannot.
Element of danger
The first is freedom to disseminate information. The second is the effect it has on individual concerned. Put another way: freedom of speech vs a right to privacy. The internet (and newspapers generally) are, to my mind, skewed correctly towards freedom of speech. But sometimes someone’s right to privacy is so important it overrides the rule. Trying to keep Mr Rohde alive is one such example. Wikipedia’s maturity should be applauded.
Safety, in other words, trumps freedom of speech – a theme echoed by Adam Reilly, the media critic at the Boston Phoenix. Reilly parses the debate in terms of life and death: "The Times simply had do everything in its power to increase [Rodhe's] chances of survival." Furthermore, Reilly explains, although Wikipedia did "constrain" the freedom of its users – by erasing or otherwise editing posts on Rodhe's kidnapping – there was no first amendment violation.
"The individuals who wanted to get word of Rohde's kidnapping out could have contacted countless news outlets, for example; or nabbed a relevant blogspot account to publicize Rohde's situation and Wikipedia's response; or simply stood on the streetcorner handing out leaflets that did the same," Reilly concludes.
Did Jimmy Wales make the right call? Tell us here – or on Twitter.