Journalists at Risk: It’s Part of the Job

Nobody ever said doing good journalism is easy–or safe.
In fact, reporters and photographers who have spent any significant time covering war, revolution, political upheaval, and natural disaster are keenly aware that when they arrive in war ravaged places like Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria, they may not return home in one piece or even alive.
That is the hard reality of the job. It is one that every correspondent and photographer must grapple with before he or she accepts a dangerous assignment.
There is little doubt that James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the two freelance American journalists who were beheaded by their Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captors, knew the risks they were taking in going to places like Iraq and Syria.
Since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1,074 reporters and photographers have been killed world-wide covering the news.
“Why do you guys do it.” a friend asked me recently, “when you obviously know how dangerous it is in those places?”
Marie Colvin, the Sunday Timescorrespondent killed in Syria in 2012 may have answered that question as well as anyone:
“Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.”
Most correspondents and photographers I have known would answer the question in a similar way.
Marie Colvin Killed in 2012
My answer, when asked why I used to jump on a plane and head for a war torn country, was that I was doing it to bear witness.
If reporters and photographers aren’t there to cover the carnage, atrocities and suffering caused by war then how will the world know what is happening? Who will speak for those ground up by the violence, displaced from their homes, murdered for their political or religious beliefs?
In my case, during a 25 year career with the Chicago Tribune in Asia and Latin America, I often found myself wondering why I was putting myself in danger in order to write a story that was likely to wind up in the bottom of somebody’s bird cage.
Once again, Marie Colvin was right on the money back in 2010 when she said:
“”We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado? Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price.”
In the case of correspondents of my generation the countries where the ultimate price was paid were places like Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, and the Balkans.
During the 20 or so years that I toiled abroad six of my friends were killed covering war, revolution and coups d’état.
Each time that happened, I questioned why I was exposing myself to a similar fate.
Yates Covering Cambodia & Vietnam
And each time my answer was the same: I felt a responsibility to tell the world what I was witnessing. Only then could enough pressure be brought to bear to end the carnage or help the brutalized civilian non-combatants with the basics of life: food, water, shelter and medical care.
That’s no doubt what motivated Foley and Sotloff to expose themselves to the dangers they faced in Syria.
The barbarians who brutally took the lives of these two men are the very reasons why reporters and photographers feel compelled to cover war. These savages need to be exposed for what they are and what they represent.
Look back at World War II. What if there had been courageous reporters able to write about the Nazi death camps or the horrendous atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army against millions of Chinese, Filipinos and allied POWs?
There is no way of knowing if stories appearing in newspapers or on radio networks of the time would have stopped what the Nazis and the Japanese were doing. It was total war, after all.
But something tells me that by bearing witness some lives would have been saved.
I can recall an incident in El Salvador when a government officer was about to execute an anti-government guerrilla captured after a battle near a ramshackle village. He pointed a German made G-3 rifle at the back of the kneeling guerrilla’s head and seemed about ready to pull the trigger, when he noticed me standing nearby watching him.
He quickly pointed his rifle to the ground and instead of shooting the guerrilla, kicked him in the back and sent him sprawling to the ground.
“Put him in the prisoner compound,” he barked. Then he smiled at me and walked away.
Did my presence save that man’s life? I have no idea. But at least, for that one brief moment, a life was spared.
Can journalists stop wars and other forms of violence and mayhem?
No, and anybody who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. But what journalists can do is make readers, viewers and listeners aware of what is happening in places like Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan.
That is our job. We are the messengers. The job of those we bring the message to is to use that information to inhibit and impede the kind of barbarism and brutality we are seeing today in Iraq and Syria.
Here is my rule when it comes to dangerous assignments.
When the risks associated with reporting a story are weighed against whatever benefits might be derived from the story and the risks outweigh the benefits, my rule is simple: leave and live to report another day.
No story is worth your life.