The Changing Role of War Zone Journalists

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BY TORI SGARRO

A man dressed in all black hunches over a makeshift barricade in Gezi Park. He uses one hand to shield his face from tear gas released by police. With the other, he raises a Turkish flag above his body. The bright red flag, illuminated by a distant streetlight, waves against the darkness of the night sky.

A woman and her two children lie still on a tiled floor with her shopping bag and keys sprawled next to them. Their bodies stretch parallel to the café counter where they had ordered coffee only minutes earlier. Her leg and arm cover her son’s back, and her hand touches her daughter’s folded arm at the elbow. They wait there, paralyzed, as Al-Shabaab militants hold the Westgate Mall hostage.

Two men carry a young man’s limp body through a crowd in Cairo. Blood stains his open shirt and pours from the fresh bullet wound in his head. One of the men, not yet realizing that he holds a dead body, screams through his dislodged gas mask, for a medic and for God.

These photos and their accompanying headlines are easily recognizable in the public’s mind. But what often remains less considered are the people who witness these events from behind the camera lens. The people who, after snapping that iconic photo, struggle to breathe through the tear gas. Who crawl off of the mall’s roof for fear of presenting an easy target to attackers. Who see that stranger’s bloody face in their dreams.

Today’s conflict zone reporters face a multitude of dangers unique to their particular field of journalism: military checkpoints, kidnappings, bombings, land mines. Their critics say they face all of this in search of a gory picture or an exploitative story. Their proponents say they do it to achieve transparency on global conflicts, nobly risking their lives to provide the information necessary to shape public opinion and government policy.

Yet war zone journalists of the past encountered relatively little danger compared to today. Only two journalists died covering World War I, and 63 in World War II. By contrast, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that more than 150 journalists died reporting on the Iraq War, a war on a much smaller scale. Perhaps most tellingly, 2012 marked the deadliest year for journalists since the International Press Institute began monitoring this statistic in 1997. Moreover, until recently, the deaths of war zone reporters were usually accidental, considered the collateral damage of the destructive reach of war. However, today dissenters explicitly target journalists, either to interrogate them for information or to send a message to the enemy. During the Iraq War, two out of every three journalists who died were murdered due to what they had written or for whom they wrote.

As an increasing number of news organizations close their foreign bureaus due to the hostile financial climate, the few that remain focus on conflict areas presenting threats similar to those of the Iraq War. To compensate for this increased risk, these organizations have recently pushed to provide extra training for their foreign correspondents. Fresh from the sheltered classrooms of America’s universities or the quiet streets of small towns, novice warzone journalists often find themselves incredibly unprepared for the threats that come with their new assignment. Specialized war zone training aims to teach them how to respond in interrogations, how to diffuse tension in conflict situations, and even how to administer first aid.

As the only American news organization with growing foreign coverage, National Public Radio (NPR) leads the pack in adjusting to the increased level of danger threatening its conflict zone reporters. For the past ten years, the organization has sent its foreign correspondents on weekend-long retreats to receive specialized training. After attending one such training session in 2002, Jason Beaubien, NPR’s global health and development correspondent, soon found the opportunity to put what he had learned to use. When he saw a car run over a child in Zimbabwe, Beaubien used his newfound knowledge to intervene.

“The kid was just lying there. It was like a movie. All these people were around, but no one was going to the body. I went over and applied pressure to the wound. In what felt like 15 to 20 minutes, the Zimbabwean medical response team showed up,” Beaubien said in a 2013 interview with NPR.

Tori 21.1However, Beaubien’s story raises questions about the ethics of war zone journalism and the role of the reporter. From a humanist perspective, Beaubien’s actions seem like the ethical and appropriate response. But as a journalist, there are other factors to consider before stepping in to help a wounded civilian in a conflict area. Is it the foreign correspondent’s responsibility to remain a neutral bystander, minimizing his influence on the events he covers, regardless of the situation? Or does the very act of witnessing war demand an active response?

Perhaps, simply by recording and bearing witness to what happens, journalists inevitably affect the stories they report on. After all, they choose whose stories are worthy of telling, and whose to leave out. But by teaching journalists skills such as advanced first aid and negotiation techniques, do news organizations encourage their staff to more actively participate in the conflicts which they cover?

The story of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter offers one lens through which to examine this question. In March 1993, Carter snapped a picture of a starving Sudanese child suffering due to the country’s famine and civil war. The photograph conjures an especially haunting image, picturing the emaciated Sudanese girl huddled against the ground, unable to reach a nearby feeding center, while a vulture eyes her in the background. Carter’s photo later won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, and arguably drew the world’s attention to the problems of a widely overlooked nation.

However, in addition to widespread praise, Carter also faced public backlash for not helping the girl he photographed. Despite the probable restrictions which he faced there—journalists in the Sudanese war zone were asked not to touch famine victims for risk of transmitting disease—a particularly acerbic editorial in The St. Petersburg Times summed up public opinion on the issue: “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.”

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Unable to shake off the criticism and all that he had seen as a war zone photographer, Carter committed suicide less than four months after receiving the Pulitzer Prize. “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…,” his suicide note read.

Carter’s story suggests an extreme version of the dilemma which today’s conflict journalists face. If they do nothing, they can harbor lifelong feelings of guilt and responsibility for arguably contributing to the violence. But if they do something, they may lose the impartiality so necessary to the effective execution of their job, and even risk making the situation worse. Now armed with superficial knowledge of first aid principles and conflict resolution strategies learned over the course of a three-day-long training session, it is possible that a well-meaning war zone correspondent could try to be a hero and inevitably act outside of his domain.

In today’s constant stream of information, war journalists face the constant pressure to be the first and closest to the conflict. They see their friends and colleagues kidnapped, injured, killed or commit suicide. They risk developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder similar to that of soldiers returning from combat. So with all of these extra hardships and moral considerations, why do these reporters choose this field? For some it is the idealistic vision of overcoming grave danger to uncover the truth in these areas. For others, the adrenaline rush draws them to increasingly larger conflicts and more dangerous places.

“It makes you think… if it’s really worth it in the end to lose your life for a picture… I don’t know… I don’t think I can answer that right now,” said Finbarr O’Reilly, a war zone photo-journalist for Reuters, in the 2011 documentary Under Fire: Journalists in Combat.

As more and more media organizations close their foreign bureaus, allocating conflict zone reporting to freelancers or local reporters who cover only the most traditionally newsworthy issues, it seems that O’Reilly’s question has been answered for him.

Victoria Sgarro

Victoria Sgarro is a junior studying Comparative Literature in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at vrsgarro@wustl.edu.

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