Hostage situations

Hostage situations require careful thinking by news media — preferably in advance — on how they should be handled.

Most news media take pains not to make a hostage situation worse. They avoid reporting on preparations for rescue operations. Most reporters also avoid trying to contact hostage-holders when a hostage situation is underway, for fear this will confuse the situation and interfere with attempts by authorities to bring the situation to an end. They also usually defer to authorities’ judgment if hostage-holders ask to be interviewed in return for the hostages’ release.

Sometimes hostage-holders offer videos of their hostages. These may simply show that those held are in good condition or may show the hostages giving statements — statements that are clearly made under duress and are designed to advance the hostage-holders’ goals.

Some news media feel transmission of such videos and statements is important to show the hostages’ condition and to allow viewers to better understand the hostage-holders’ demands. Other media, however, feel that use of such videos plays into the hostage-holders’ hands by making them celebrities and repeating (through hostage statements) their propaganda.

A possible compromise is to run only a few seconds of the video. This shows the hostages’ condition while relaying little or none of the hostage-holders’ message.

Sometimes hostage-holders release videos of hostages being killed. (The Associated Press Stylebook suggests saying “killed” instead of “executed,” since hostage-holders are not normally judicial bodies). If they provide imagery at all of such killings, most news organizations use very little of it, perhaps one shot of the moment before the killings but not showing the killing itself underway.

This main author of this section is Thomas Kent.

See also the sections in this project on “Bomb and Other Threats,” and “Sensational and Gory Material.”