Hartford's mayor and Chief of Police have blasted the Hartford Courant for not cooperating with city officials when it refused to remove a story from its website during a hostage standoff. But a journalism ethics expert says the Courant made the right call.
On Tuesday afternoon, after allegedly kidnapping his ex-wife from outside her downtown Hartford office, Richard Shenkman told police he would blow up his house with his ex-wife inside if the Hartford Courant did not remove its front page story about the standoff. He gave a 2:30 p.m. deadline.
The Courant did not remove the story, and Shenkman did not detonate the house. His ex-wife escaped safely that night. Then, Shenkman set fire to the house and was taken to a hospital, where he was later arraigned.
On Wednesday, Hartford mayor Eddie Perez and Chief of Police Daryl Roberts wrote a letter to the Courant publisher Richard Graziano criticizing the newspaper's coverage. They said the paper ignored law enforcement requests to temporarily remove the story and quote "placed a higher value on generating website viewership than protecting human life."
But Kelly McBride, a journalism ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, says the Courant made the right decision.
"It's a very difficult position to be in, but I don't think we should just be capitulating to the demands of a violent person."
McBride says the editorial decision has to balance public safety concerns with the responsibility of keeping the public informed. Holding an article or not reporting sensitive information during a hostage situation is one thing, she says, but removing a story that has already been published is more problematic.
"I question whether it's a good idea given the harm that it causes. You've already got this up there, so now you've got a bunch of people in your audience saying, 'A hostage situation, we need to find out what's going on with that.' And then boom, it's gone?"
In a statement, the Hartford Courant says it stands by its decision to keep the story posted. The newspaper says that when it was contacted by police, information about the threat was incomplete and the level of imminent danger was unclear. Still, the Courant says the letter from city officals raised important issues and has prompted the paper to review its policies about posting and removing stories during breaking news events.