A Dying Breed

Some journalists teeter between recklessness and bravery in their hunt for the story.

[Correction: In Scott Taylor’s Unembedded, there is no indication that the author fired the weapon he was issued by Canadian military personnel in the Balkans, as claimed in the review below. We apologize for the error.]

When CTV journalist Clark Todd was killed covering the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1983, the dangers of war reporting were brought home to Canadians. Fortunately, few western journalists are killed on assignment. While much attention has been paid more recently to those who have been killed in the line of duty (Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal and Kate Peyton of BBC News most notably), the number of western-based journalists who die in the field remains relatively small—due, in part, to the reduction of overseas assignments as a cost-cutting measure and to the decline in foreign reporting in general. But according to the International News Safety Institute—a Brussels-based organization that monitors these things—in the past twelve years, more than 1,400 journalists world-wide have been murdered while trying to do their job. Of these journalists, 90 percent were local reporters working in their own countries. As such, we in the west rarely read about their deaths. International reporting may have its glamorous side. But for local reporters, journalism is a deadly way to make a living.

Two books illustrate the changes and the increased risks that foreign reporting has undergone.

Scott Taylor, now editor of Esprit de Corps, spent his own time in the field and has produced a very personal memoir, Unembedded: Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting. At one level this book is about Taylor’s view that Canadian servicemen and -women are frequently betrayed by politicians and top brass at the Department of National Defence who he feels are time-serving careerists, happy to stay in Ottawa. But it is also about Taylor’s own swashbuckling grudges and narcissistic impulses. Taylor himself is a Canadian ex-serviceman. He claims to put himself in harm’s way to get the story, but in so doing endangers professional foreign correspondents who, unlike Taylor, try to make the reporter secondary to the reporting, and who place the story above their own reputations. Taylor recounts a few of his own self-described “maverick” adventures including one truly appalling incident: in the Balkans in 1988, Taylor, as a freelance journalist, got himself embedded with a Canadian re-supply convoy, the Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regiment. His eager willingness to be embedded belies the title of his book. In the process of delivering supplies, Taylor agreed to carry a pistol, two ammunition clips and three hand grenades. He says he was prepared to use them against Serbian forces if necessary. At one point he claims to have fired his weapon in the direction of the Serb forces, coyly dismissing this foolhardy act by stating, “I had never been able to hit much with a pistol—at any range.” [Please note the correction at the beginning of this article.]

But the irresponsibility of this gesture cannot be overstated. Taylor deliberately confuses his professed role as a journalist with his previous army experience. The fact that he would bear arms and indeed fire them while on assignment not only endangered himself, but endangered all other foreign correspondents who would come into the field long after Taylor had returned to safety in Canada.

It is unfortunate to have to say this, but in Unembedded, Scott Taylor provides a clear example of the cult of personality journalist for whom adrenalin and adulation are the ultimate rewards.

In contrast, Terry Gould’s remarkable book, Murder Without Borders: Dying for the Story in the World’s Most Dangerous Places, on the dangers of reporting abroad, is a timely and serious corrective to the notion that, aside from Iraq and Afghanistan, there is not much of interest in international reporting. Gould, an American journalist living in Vancouver, evocatively recounts six instances of mostly unknown (at least to Canadians) journalists who were murdered because of their commitment to the story.

It is impossible to read Gould’s appreciation for the utter fearlessness (and occasional foolhardiness) of local journalists in Colombia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Russia and Iraq and not feel a sense of shame that our own journalism, with its relentless trolling for circulation and ratings, so often abandons these compelling stories in pursuit of a more profitable and comforting approach to the news.

Gould points out that journalism everywhere is still a very dangerous way to make a living. The International News Safety Institute reports that at least 24 journalists were killed in the first three months of this year alone. A further eleven fatalities in that same period are still under investigation to determine whether their deaths were in connection with their jobs. Last year, 109 journalists died trying to cover the news. The New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists named the most dangerous places on earth for journalists as Iraq, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Colombia, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Nepal and Russia.

Gould cites examples of personal courage in six of these dangerous places that resulted in the murder of journalists, usually with the complicity of the authorities. Most murders of journalists go unsolved and Gould recounts, in detail, how these six journalists worked the story, and took incredible risks to themselves and their families to get the news back to their local audiences for whom this story most mattered.

One extraordinary example is Guillermo Bravo Vega, a Colombian journalist who was shot and killed in 2003 in the small town of Neiva about 400 kilometres southeast of Bogota. There in rural Colombia he reported for more than 20 years about the connections between narco-traffickers and municipal and state corruption before finally being murdered by person or persons unknown. Bravo was no journalistic naif; he was 64 years old when he died.

Bravo came to journalism late in life—he was in his forties when he began to write. His explorations of the interrelationships of local and national politicians with the Colombian oil industry, real estate developers and narco-traffickers made him a marked man as soon as he wrote his first story. He was an active union member and made no secret of his left-leaning sympathies in his reporting. Bravo named names, especially identifying politicians’ relatives who were on the payrolls of oil companies as lobbyists. He recited Cuban poetry on air and referred to his allies as “los compañeros del lucha”—lucha meaning struggle and a recognizable Castroite code word for revolution.

It is important to note that Gould has not written a hagiography of murdered journalists. Bravo, for example, was a very complicated and difficult person. Management would likely have considered him high maintenance. He was fired or resigned from every newspaper he ever worked for; his personal life was a mess and he openly carried on with other women in the small town where he lived and worked, while still married to his long-suffering (first) wife. Bravo openly editorialized in his news reporting by attacking local politicians.

One of Bravo’s colleagues whom Gould interviewed described working with him as like being inside a tornado that was wilfully trying to turn the town upside down—or right side up. “Man, he had a temper,” this journalist recounted. “If he found out someone was up to something and covering it up, he’d come to the studio, he’d bang the table, he’d scream, ‘I’ll get that guy!’”

It’s remarkable that Bravo survived as long as he did.

More well known to western audiences is the story of Anna Politkovskaya, a truly brave Russian reporter who was murdered on her doorstep in Moscow on the evening of October 7, 2006.

Politkovskaya was a relentless and outspoken critic of the savage Russian war in the Caucasus, and constantly attacked Russian president Vladimir Putin’s role in both prosecuting the war and in using the war as a pretext to eliminate political rivals in post-Soviet Russia.

Born in New York City to Ukrainian diplomats, Politkovskaya could have lived a life of relative security as part of the Soviet nomenklatura—the protected elite. But in university she discovered journalism and a taste for adventure by going against the grain—both professionally and personally. As a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, she shared many of the attributes of the other journalists mentioned by Gould. Politkovskaya was fearless, disregarding her own personal security, and in a constant state of fury about what Putin was doing to Chechnya in particular and the brutalizing effect of the war on Russians in general. She had no patience for journalists who were less outraged than she was. She would publicly denounce her colleagues in person and in print. She used any and all methods to damn Putin and to draw attention to the plight of the Chechnyans, including using broadcasts on the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to spread the word. Those broadcasts, combined with her New York birthplace, raised suspicions among her journalistic rivals, as well as among some in the Kremlin, that she was an American agent.

Her murder remains unsolved despite a quickly arranged trial of four Chechnyans who were convicted late last year of collusion in the murder, but not of the murder itself. The trial heard testimony from a Novaya Gazeta editor that Politkovskaya’s murder was ordered by the FSB (the successor to the KGB). At that point the trial abruptly ended with the judge handing out lesser sentences to all the accused.

Terry Gould has written an elegy to Politkovskaya and to others less well known as a tribute to all who pursue the story in spite of threats. The vast majority of these remarkable journalists would be unknown to us in the West were it not for authors such as Gould and the work of extraordinary support groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontières.

One aspect of these stories of courage that could benefit from further exploration is how these journalists manage—or not—to maintain their sense of balance, perspective and sanity while undergoing the most appalling stresses. Most of these journalists clearly suffered from the effects of their work. News organizations are slowly catching on to the fact that their war reporters are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders. Thanks to organizations such as the International News Safety Institute (full disclosure: I am on the INSI board), the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University in New York and the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma at the University of Western Ontario, there is more awareness about this issue.

News organizations are coming to understand that journalists need extensive training before they go into war zones and often need counselling and not alcohol when they come back. Too many journalists, like Scott Taylor, dismiss this concern as unmanly and unjournalistic. They could not be more wrong. After one incident in Bosnia, Taylor recounts that the Canadian military dispatched a team of civilian psychiatrists conducting a study of PTSD.

We didn’t need psychoanalysis at this point; all we needed was a good breakfast and some sleep. After a mound of bacon and eggs, washed down with hot, strong coffee, I bid … farewell, turned in my pistol and grenades and caught a ride with an armoured convoy to Sarajevo.

The news business has always been a dangerous place for a certain few who—for reasons both personal and professional—feel drawn to those edgy, outlier stories that come with a unique psychological price tag. While most of us live and work inside the relative comfort and security of western journalistic institutions, others take a harder and lonelier route in opting for overseas assignments, a.k.a. foreign reporting. While both these books illustrate different aspects of that dangerous and solitary work, neither offers psychological insights into what makes this unique breed of journalists tick.

The job of being a foreign correspondent has changed dramatically in recent years. News organizations once prided themselves on having a stable of experienced and versatile journalists who knew the ins and outs of danger zones and diplomatic subtleties. Now media organizations praise the fiscal prudence that news managers show by running syndicated visuals from the Associated Press, Reuters or the BBC, thus pleasing shareholders or, in the case of public broadcasting, not antagonizing their political masters.

Along the way, while costs are cut, other more important things are lost as well. The value of having a reporter on the ground, living among the people she or he covers, is that it gives a deeper understanding to the story that cannot be achieved in a one-week fly-in visit. And as much as journalists may object to the idea, their own country’s foreign policy defines the kind of overseas journalism they do. American journalism retrenched in the 1990s and Canadian journalism followed along. The Bush administration’s disdain for what happened abroad (aside from “GWOT”—the so-called “Global War on Terrorism,” a phrase now thankfully abandoned by the Obama administration) found reflection in the domestic obsessions of much American journalism. Canadian journalism was similarly narrowed through the Chrétien and Harper years. Massive cuts to foreign news only served to heighten an increasingly local and often parochial view. Journalism has become smaller in scope and, as a result, so has the outlook of the citizens that it purports to serve.

Yet the news—as dangerous as ever—is still there. We just are not covering it as we once did. And if anything, covering the news is more dangerous now than ever before, even if Canadians, Americans and other western journalists are not dying on assignment as they were a generation ago. Now that dubious distinction belongs to the so-called “local hires,” those men and women who risk their lives to get the story—usually for local outlets, sometimes for the few international news agencies still willing to stay out there on our behalf, and often for a rate of pay far below that of a western journalist.

Some news organizations are still committed to telling the story: the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera English and NPR, among others, still devote resources to report on the difficult lives of people in other countries. In Canada, the CBC and The Globe and Mail still are committed to foreign reporting, but much less than they once were, according to their own foreign correspondents. But much of this powerful reporting goes ignored and unnoticed in the West. Financially stressed media organizations struggle to survive by cutting costs, reducing content and filling pages and airtime with soft features, cheaply obtained, in order not so much to inform as to avoid upsetting anyone. Meanwhile, far too many brave reporters around the globe will continue to die in their pursuit of honest journalism.