Thursday, March 24, 2022

Too Much Information Can be Dangerous

Just finished reading an article in The New York Times quoting Russians in Venezuela forced to cut short their idyllic Caribbean vacations to return to a frozen country at war and under severe economic sanctions.

Time after time the reporter cited their first names, occupations and home towns, as if leaving out their last names would protect them from government reprisals.

Really? Are The Times and its reporter so naive to believe Russia’s intrusive, thought-stifling government lacks the wherewithal to uncover their identities?

Take this example: “During the last days of their vacation, some guests said they put their faith in Mr. Putin, who governed Russia for 22 years with the support of many Russians.

“‘We trust our president,’ said a tourist from Moscow, also named Yulia. ‘I don’t think he will lead us to collapse.’ Her husband Oleg quietly interjected, ‘Well, it’s already collapsed’” (

Oleg’s honest interjection no doubt will play loud and clear in Moscow’s secret police headquarters. How difficult do you think it will be for the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service (a successor of the KGB) to find a Yulia and Oleg of Moscow who travelled by plane to Venezuela and back in February and early March. 

From Venezuela’s sunny Margarita Island to the possible, perhaps probable, winter wonderland of a gulag in Siberia, all because Times journalists somehow thought the article would be more realistic and accurate if they did not fully conceal the identities of those interviewed. 

A journalist’s obligation is to objectively report the news. But like physicians who take the Hippocratic oath, journalists should adhere to one of the oath’s central tenets—“do no harm.” If that means obscuring details of a person interviewed, so be it, as long as the underlying facts of the story are not misrepresented.

I’m sensitive to this issue because of an incident when I was a bureau chief in West Haven, Conn., for The New Haven Register back in 1976. As per the paper’s policy I included the address of a man I profiled who used a metal detector to uncover lost treasures—jewelry and coins—buried in parks and beaches. 

Sure enough, his anonymity compromised, within a few days his house was burglarized. Sometimes, too much information can lead to unintended consequences.