The amount of media attention a kidnapping receives is different for each case. Some cases do not generate media attention at all, while others do. It will depend on the nature of the kidnapping, who has been taken and the amount of publicity demanded by the kidnappers. The media can learn about kidnap incidents from a range of sources, including family members, the hostage’s employer or co-workers or local media statements. Governments can also put out a statement about the factual information of the kidnap.
Engaging with the media
Each kidnapping is unique and there is, therefore, no ‘standard’ approach to the media. You should always think carefully before engaging with them.
In most cases, you will be advised not to publicise the kidnapping in the media.
Potential pitfalls of publicity include:
Raising the kidnappers’ financial expectations, giving them publicity and increasing the risks to the hostage;
Encouraging hoaxes, where third parties claim to hold the hostage, diverting attention and resources away from the real case;
Attracting attention from unscrupulous individuals who might hijack the story for their own purposes; and
Leading social media ‘trolls’ to you and your family’s profiles, allowing them to send unprovoked, cruel and/or abusive messages.
Once you have publicised the case, you cannot undo this action. The media will be encouraged to continue contacting you for comment – even after the kidnap.
There are some cases where the media can play a useful role. You might want to give a statement if the news of the incident is publicised, or the authorities may encourage you to make a plea. If you are considering going to the media about the kidnapping incident, identify your objectives and consider how you will manage reactions and media requests in the long term.
In all cases, it is advisable to make decisions about the media in conjunction with the people who are managing negotiations and have a full picture of communications and background information.
Managing approaches from the media
You may be approached by journalists. Reputable journalists and media professionals will explain what they are after and allow you to ask questions and come back to them in your own time. Others, who do not share your interests, might put unnecessary pressure on you or try to convince you to give them your story in exchange for exclusive information. Do not feel pressured to give your story to any journalists and vet the credibility of all approaches. If you are unsure about whether to give your story, keep a record of the journalist’s contact details so you can reach out to them when you are clear about your final decision.
Journalists will want to get a lot of information from you, ranging from family life, employment, family history, the incident, how you are all coping and your opinion on how the operation is being managed by government and other organisations.
They will ask for a recent photograph of the hostage and family. Make sure that the photo is not ‘unhelpful’. Don’t choose one that gives the impression the hostage is wealthy. Avoid photos that might be perceived as offensive to the kidnappers – for example, photos that show the hostage drinking alcohol, dressing immodestly, or showing an allegiance to a particular religious faith or political cause. Avoid photos that imply military links.
Because of the global and open nature of the media, you must assume that the kidnappers will read published material.
The following ideas might help you to reduce the stress on you and your family from media contact:
- Write down what you want to say before you speak to a journalist. Stick to that, and do not say more than you had planned to. They will always push you for more and might rely on the silence technique to try to make you fill the gap. Be firm but friendly. Consider giving a prepared statement.
- Whenever you speak to a journalist, make a note of their name, organisation and contact details. Consider screening your phone calls, or having a dedicated number for important calls.
- Consider having one person to act as the point of contact for the media. They will establish relationships with journalists, track what has been said, stop journalists playing one family member off against another, and ensure the family maintains a consistent message.
- Consider recording your conversations with journalists to encourage them to act appropriately and agree the parameters of what you are comfortable speaking about with the journalist before the interview.
- If you don’t want a journalist to report something, don’t tell them. There is no such thing as ‘off the record’; they can report what you have said without attributing it to you.
- If you do need to speak to the media, you could use a single interview that is shared around newspapers and TV channels, rather than doing separate interviews for each.
- If more than one hostage has been taken, it is important that the families try to agree a common media strategy. If one hostage is released before the others, the media must be handled with considerable care until all hostages are home safely.
- Journalists can learn and use information put on social media by family members, including the hostage. In conjunction with those handling the kidnapping, consider if it is worth increasing the privacy settings of family members social media accounts, or closing them down completely.
What to do if a journalist is acting inappropriately
On the whole, most journalists are responsible people. But, they have a job to do and will be under pressure to get information.If you are unhappy with the behaviour of a journalist, you could tell them that you will report them to their employer. If this does not work, go ahead and report them by writing to their editor (newspapers) or news editor (television and radio).
Most people now have social media accounts on lots of different platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Our social media accounts contain personal information about us and our loved ones, where we live, what we spend our money on, how we use our spare time, what we do for a job, and our interests. They also connect us to friends, family, colleagues, people we went to school or university with, as well as some random acquaintances. Because the information on our social media accounts can be accessed by a wide network of people, it is important to think carefully about what is on your profiles and that of the hostage and wider family.
Considerations for social media
Liaise with those who are handling the kidnapping response about the steps to take with your social media accounts. Considerations include closing your social media accounts and increasing the privacy settings to limit the number of people who have access to your personal information, photos and comments.
Don’t forget LinkedIn profiles, which might contain information that could be harmful to the hostage, such as military connections, affiliations with certain organisations or other information that might imply you or the hostage are wealthy or influential.
Due to the speed of social media, you might hear about new developments in the kidnap incident via that route rather than from your government contacts.
Social media platforms, like Facebook, have options to allow you to limit the people who can see your profile, view your photos and access information about you. Each platform has instructions on how to do this.
Some families have been victims of cyberbullying on social media. Bullies can be people they know or strangers, including ‘trolls’ who proactively find vulnerable people to bully online. Cyberbullying is a hard issue to deal with and should be referred to law enforcement.
Using social media to monitor developments
You might want to monitor social media and the internet for news about the hostage, the group holding them or the country where they have been taken. This is understandable. However, given the amount of information available, it can become overwhelming. It might be advisable to give yourself ‘time out’ from the internet and social media each day and try to avoid this before you go to bed so you can rest properly.
Scrutinise sources of information in view of the rise of fake news and misinformation.
What to do if images or videos of the hostage appear on social media
In some cases, images or videos of your loved one might appear online and on social media.
Immediately report these videos to the authorities. Consider the access young people and children have to social media and ensure they are supported if they have accessed distressing videos relating to the kidnap. While you cannot control their access, try to make sure they do not watch these videos over and over.
It can sometimes be possible to have videos removed if they breach the terms of service of the social media or search engine companies. Sometimes it will not be possible and this can be very distressing. You can complain directly to the companies concerned and ask them to take action to remove the images or videos.
Children, young people and social media
Children and young people have grown up using social media and often communicate with their friends that way. Therefore, it can be difficult to ask them to close their accounts entirely.
It can help to talk to them about why it is important for them to increase their privacy settings and think differently about what they post. You should discourage them from writing about the kidnapping on their social media accounts and help them to understand why this could be dangerous for the hostage or distressing for them should this be used in newspaper articles or media reports.