Novice Journalists Take Life-threatening Risks

A story about the two journalists held hostage in Somalia sent chills down my spine and spurred memories I’d almost put to rest about my own experiences in Somalia almost 15 years ago. Ian Austen writes in the NY Times about Amanda Lindhout who was recently freed with a companion, Nigel Brennan, after six months captivity that included beatings, extortion calls to the U.S. to her family and confinement in a windowless room.

Austen’s story says novice journalists hoping to break into the business find war zones a pathway to instant fame or instant recognition. Ms. Lindhout was an aspiring journalist with no experience. She saved money from her job as a waitress to fund her trip to Somalia. Not taking into account the full extent of risk, or underestimating it, Ms. Lindhout put herself in danger that other more experienced journalists in the country avoided.

Austen reports the International News Safety Institute says 1,500 people have been killed in the past decade working for news organizations. The story out of the Philippines last week about the massacre in the south included the deaths of 26 journalists, one of the highest death tolls in a single incident in recent history. And this isn’t a story of inexperience, it was a massacre that even experienced people didn’t anticipate.

Journalists are not considered neutral observers by some, much as they’d like to be, or much as they define their roles in this way. They are targets in some circumstances, functions to be exploited in others. Experienced professional journalists know this and deal with it daily. But it takes considerable experience to function in these murky and dangerous waters in a culture that’s not your own. And it’s even nettlesome in your own culture.

Add the physical danger and lack of limits that conflict brings and the circumstances can become life-threatening quickly. That’s what I read into Austen’s story.

As for my own experience, I’ll return to my notes and write a narrative someday. This story spurred my thinking. I was experienced. I was run out of the country by a disgruntled warlord, escaped a bomb threat and lived to tell about it. And I returned through a backdoor and completed my work albeit with great attention to personal security.

And I had an infrastructure of sorts to assist me, something Ms. Lindhout and Mr. Brennan seemed to lack.

This doesn’t mean that I think journalists should avoid such circumstances, and knowing some, I know they won’t. In some places conditions are much more deadly than they appear on the surface. Experience is an important guide in these places. On the other hand, where danger is obvious, security measures are critical and there’s no wiggle room for shortcuts. Neither circumstance is a place for on-the-job training of isolated novices.

There are important stories to be told. There are people whose stories won’t be told without the aid of journalists. There are stories that help us understand the world in which we live and why it’s important for us to see it holistically. There are global stories that connect us and reveal how our quality of life is interconnected with those who live half a world away.

I want journalists to tell these stories. But with calculated caution for the risks, taking care for their own safety and those with whom they work.

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