How NOT to Do Social Media

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Do News Blackouts Really Help When Journalists Are Held Hostage?

An image grab from a YouTube video uploaded on December 18 allegedly shows NBC employees, from left to right, Aziz Akyavas, Richard Engel, and John Kooistra in captivity in Syria. (AFP/YouTube)

At any given time over the past two years, as wars raged in Libya and then Syria, and as other conflicts ground on in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a number of journalists have been held captive by a diverse array of forces, from militants and rebels to criminals and paramilitaries. And at any given time, a small handful of these cases–sometimes one or two, sometimes more–have been purposely kept out of the news media. That is true today.

News organizations have invoked the captives’ safety in seeking media blackouts. But do the blackouts really benefit the individuals being held captive?

A Photojournalist Witnesses Abuse-What to Do

Screen shot 2013-03-01 at 9.19.58 PMA graduate student at Ohio State was shooting a photo assignment on the “stigma of being an ex-convict.” In November 2012, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz began telling the story of a couple that met while he was in prison. Sara explains how she became a witness to actual abuse and why she has become the focus of a lot of critique:

“Shane and Maggie had started dating a month prior to meeting me, and Shane told me about his struggles with addiction and that he had spent much of his life in prison. Maggie shared her experience losing her mother to a drug overdose at the age of eight, and having the challenges of raising two small children alone while their father, who was in the Army, was stationed in Afghanistan. Before they drove home, I asked if I could continue to document them, and they agreed.

I intended to paint a portrait of the catch-22 of being a released ex-convict: even though they are physically free, the metaphorical prison of stigma doesn’t allow them to truly escape. That story changed dramatically one night, after a visit to a bar.

In a nearby town where Shane had found temporary work, they stayed with the kids at a friend’s house. That night, at a bar, Maggie had become incensed when another woman had flirted with Shane, and left. Back at the house, Maggie and Shane began fighting. Before long, their yelling escalated into physical violence.

Shane attacked Maggie, throwing her into chairs, pushing her up against the wall and choking her in front of her daughter, Memphis.

After I confirmed one of the housemates had called the police, I then continued to document the abuse — my instincts as a photojournalist began kicking in. If Maggie couldn’t leave, neither could I.”

The essay and the outpouring that followed raised new questions about when and how photojournalists should get involved in the stories they cover and when they should intervene, if at all.