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Nigeria's troubles not so far away when Columbians are at risk

Friday, July 31, 2009 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

On Tuesday, Andrew Denney became an international war reporter. Of sorts.

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Andrew wasn’t facing bullets or car bombs; the people he was writing about were. Columbia resident Grato Ndunguru was one of a group from Lincoln University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City who traveled to Nigeria for soil and water research at Lake Chad Basin.

Good project. Bad timing.

Hundreds of people have died over several days of fighting in northeastern Nigeria, where Lake Chad is located. The Missouri group was trapped in nearby Maiduguri, a town essentially shut down by the violence.

As Andrew picked up the story, the group was trying to get out. By mid-afternoon Tuesday, it looked like the Missourians might be able to escape south. Nothing was sure.  

Officials at UMKC asked Andrew to withhold the names of the students for safety reasons. (Lincoln University made no such request.) You see, the militants don’t much like American college folk; the name of their group, Boko Haram, roughly translates to “Western education is prohibited.”

What to do?

It’s an easy answer, right? A story shouldn’t unnecessarily put someone in harm’s way. Years ago, you might be able to argue that no one in Nigeria would read a Missourian story. No more. Any Internet search engine can pull stories from Our Fair Town anywhere across the globe.

But I didn’t believe we had enough information yet to make a decision.

Subsequent checks from several news sources suggested that the violence at that point was relatively confined to a specific part of the country. In text messages and phone calls, Ndunguru told his wife in Columbia that the Missourians were leaving Maiduguri for Yola, a city to the south where no fighting was reported.

By 5:30 p.m. Columbia time, Andrew, who would shortly be assisted by fellow reporter David Goldstein, confirmed that the group had arrived in Yola. That made my decision easier. The Missourian published the names.

By Wednesday, Ndunguru and his colleagues arrived in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

You might argue, as some in the newsroom did the next day, that any risk to safety is reason enough to withhold names. I don’t believe in such extremes; I could create a scenario not to publish information with every story every day.  

A measure of reasonableness needs to apply along with a good dose of caution and as large serving of facts.

I’m comfortable with the decision. Still, I’ll sleep better come Monday when the group arrives home.

Tom


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