This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post UK.
Journalists rarely change the world. But a vivid story can change the way we understand it – and each other.
– Jess Hill, Middle East Correspondent for the Global Mail
War journalists are often catapulted from one conflict-torn nation to another, covering stories of blood and gore and human suffering, spending night after night in lonely hotel rooms; it is a weary job but someone has to do it. Why?
Combat reporting is the backbone to a free press, vital to preserving the fourth estate, seeking to bring events of unjust conflict to the public’s eye; and its necessities as well as its dangers have been dramatically highlighted in the wake of the Iraq War and the Arab Spring.
Back in November 2010, the late Marie Colvin wrote a speech on the importance of war journalism, in which she addresses how ‘journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choice.’ She argues that ‘our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice’ but at the same time, ‘we always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?’
A war journalist is no ordinary hack. Whilst they may take every precaution to ensure their safety in the combat zone, donning bulletproof vests, pads and helmets, what happens in the chaos of warfare is completely unpredictable.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit organisation dealing with the rights of journalists and promoting press freedom internationally, have compiled reports on how many journalists and media-related professionals have been killed ‘in crossfire/combat’ since 1992. According to their findings, they put the number at 159, with 85% of these deaths having been attributed to war. A further 108 have died whilst on ‘dangerous assignment’, and 22% of these fatalities are also due to covering wars.
That is over 250 people killed as a result of being caught in a conflict they were not a part of, with the number rising every year. They were not the enemy, they were simply the spectators.
Michael Holmes, a correspondent with CNN International, has been covering conflicts since 1986, and has talked of his experiences of reporting from war zones:
Dealing with demons
Ideally, professionalism for war reporters is being unbiased as their job is to neutralise the propaganda of politicians; journalism should not take refuge under the umbrella of patriotism.
From a personal view, when reporting on conflicts, war reporters are supposed to be realistic, not cynical, neutral but not naive, and have room to empathise and understand whilst maintaining an objective context. Becoming a voyeur of human suffering is part of the experience; but this can have a dangerous impact on one’s state of mind.
In 2007, Men’s Journal, a men’s lifestyle magazine based in the US, published a profile of the CNN journalist, Anderson Cooper. Cooper had apparently become desensitised to the grotesque images of the Rwandan Genocide; the violence he witnessed on a daily basis had become almost mundane, and the body count became less and less significant. It was only when a colleague showed him a photograph of him taking a picture of a dead woman, his face showing visible fascination rather than repulsion, that he realised his perspective had to change.
A study published in the Columbia Journalism Review found that out of 170 correspondents, war journalists were revealed to have ‘significantly more post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and psychological distress.’ The graphic images of life in a warzone often do not make it into national newspapers or onto television screens, due to editorial sensitivities or for fear of the public backlash; but war reporters and photographers never receive the chance to turn their heads away.
Michael Yun, an independent conflict journalist, puts it succinctly: ‘Combat always leaves you hanging because it never ends while you are here, or when you go home. Combat tattoos itself on your brain.’
But in spite of all the risks associated with such a career, there is no shortage of aspiring war journalists, myself being one of them.
The reasons all amount to the same fact; as a journalist, you are lucky enough to have the means to highlight real problems that plague our societies. War journalists can provoke outrage and empathy by informing the public of what’s really happening in the world. They are forced to look at human suffering in the eye, driven by a sense of social conscientiousness to record history as it unfolds.
Anthony Shadid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent, was known for focussing his stories on the lives of ordinary citizens who had been greatly affected by their political or social circumstances. He attempted to connect to the people, and understand their way of life, which differed so greatly from his own. Shadid felt compelled to document the events unfolding in Syria, simply because his journalistic intuition begged him to highlight the extent of the injustice of the Syrian government, and its involvement in the killing of its own people.
When debating on whether or not Shadid should attempt to sneak into the country a second time, he sent this in an e-mail to his editors: ‘It’s just nuts. I feel like no one there is telling the truth now. We have to get the details.’
Shadid later did succeed in entering Syria secretly in order to cover the civil war.
And in February 2012, he died there.
To hell and back
Both a soldier and a journalist serve their countries on the front line, but for very different reasons.
Both must juggle their gear as they roam the conflict zone, and make quick decisions under extreme pressure, whilst also evading streams of artillery shells, dodging gunfights and avoiding military air strikes. Both risk their lives to achieve their goals.
But on the battlefield, the weapon of choice for a war journalist is not a gun, but may be a camera. They do not shoot an SA80 rifle, they shoot footage. A soldier may aim to capture the enemy, but a war journalist must always intend to capture the truth.
The difference is that soldiers are mainly men of action, whereas war journalists are people of reflection.
Covering stories in war zones, against the backdrop of raging firestorms, involves tremendous courage, the gumption, the versatility, and a lot of luck.
The next time you read or watch a news story where a reporter is covering the ongoing bombings in Syria from the city of Homs, or is documenting the political turmoil in Palestine slap-bang from the middle of the Gaza Strip, consider what the reporter is going through to obtain the facts. They may be putting their bodies in jeopardy, or brushing shoulders with death, and not even realising it.