Would You Withhold Information If It Meant Saving a Life?

A lot of bloggers tend to be trigger happy with publishing information. There’s always the desire to be the first to post about breaking news, especially if it’s fresh and yet unpublished by the more mainstream news sources. Bloggers and editors of new media publications take pride in this. But how far will we go with the desire to be first? What if it meant possibly endangering the life of a person–a fellow writer or journalist at that?

Back in November of 2008, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Rohde was kidnapped in Afghanistan. His employer, the New York Times, has struggled to keep this information under wraps for about nine months until Rohde’s escape from his captors just a few days ago. The reason: word going out would potentially endanger the life of the kidnapped reporter.

However, some Wikipedia editors (which means virtually anyone who knows how to edit content on the site) felt the need to make the information public, and Wikipedia’s administrators likewise fought a “convoluted game of cat-and-mouse” in preventing this information from being included in Rohde’s Wikipedia page. They were met with much criticism and outrage from these editors. And the administrators felt they could not arbitrarily suppress this information without attracting too much attention. So they kept trying, keeping a low-profile, and trying to stick within the limits of Wikipedia’s terms of service.

In hindsight, the Wikipedia editors who wanted to include the information on Rohde’s kidnapping probably meant no ill will. But looking at the big picture, their actions could have, indeed, led to trouble on the kidnapped journalist’s part. Even if this piece of information on Wikipedia will probably not have any direct bearing on the captors’ activities, it could perhaps be a catalyst to bigger things. People do trust Wikipedia, after all (or at least that is my perception), and if adequate sources are cited, then bloggers, Twitterers and social media users of all kinds would post, link and discuss. And as the Times’ executives fear, the publicity could, indeed, “raise Mr. Rohde’s value to his captors as a bargaining chip and reduce his chance of survival.”

As a social media user, what do you think if this dichotomy between security and freedom of information? I know this has been a pressing issue in many oppressive regimes where information is curtailed in the name of national security or such ideals. But when the risk is concrete and identifiable, and when you know that someone could, indeed, die if you leak out sensitive information, doesn’t that make you think twice before hitting the “save” or “publish” button? Which do you value more: freedom of information or life?

At the very least, this makes me realize that I should be more mindful of what I post online, whether it’s on a blog, Twitter, Flickr, and other public places.

Would you withhold information if it meant possibly saving a life?

5 thoughts on “Would You Withhold Information If It Meant Saving a Life?

  1. This reminds me of Prince Harry going to …Iraq, if i remember correctly?… and some clever partner apparently putting it on his blog. So he had to be returned to Britain immediately. And so a deployment ended with a selfish search for fame by a nameless blogger riding on someone else’s name.

  2. I’m not a journalist, but I really believe (or I’d like to believe) that if I were, I’d withhold the information. I’d like to think that keeping someone from being killed is more important than letting the world know something that is most likely irrelevant to their everyday lives. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    Brenon MacLaury

  3. Well, I am not a journalist, or not aspiring to be one. I respect others privacy and well being, so if the situation is concerned with life and death, then it comes my moral obligation to withhold this information.

  4. People seem to forget that controversial statements in Wikipedia (like “Rodhe was kidnapped by the Taliban while on assignment in Afghanistan.”) need to be cited to reliable sources. And if no news organization is reporting on the abduction, then there’s no basis for inserting those statements into Wikipedia. Wikipedia admins removing those statements could just simply be following the verifiability policy and not necessarily helping to save his life.

  5. Definitely. Freedom comes with responsibility. One should also consider that when writing. Be a responsible journalist.

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