War: too risky to report

Syria is a dangerous place, so dangerous, in fact, that the Sunday Times is no longer accepting freelance submissions from the war zone.

Asked to explain The Sunday Times policy deputy foreign editor Graeme Paterson said: “In the light of what happened to Marie Colvin we have decided we do not want to commission any journalists to cover the situation in Syria.

“And we take the same view regarding freelancers speccing in material. Even if they have returned home safely.

“This is because it could be seen as encouragement go out and take unnecessary risks in the future.

“The situation out there is incredibly risky. And we do not want to see any more bloodshed. There has been far too much already.”

This attitude echoes that of David Schlesinger, Reuters Editor-in-Chief:

Where international news organisations have embraced safety training, equipment and an ethos of caution, individuals are unlikely to have either the means or the experience to realise what they’re missing.

And if professionals opt not to cover certain events, I fear that vacuum may be too tempting for amateurs to avoid as well.

As a profession we have made great strides in safety awareness in recent years.

First we gave training and equipment to staff. Then we extended the care to the stringers who work for us. Then organisations like INSI began needed outreach to local news organisations who suffered grievously when their own regions became centres of violence and tension.

Now is the time for us to accept the newly broadened definition of our craft and ensure that we give opportunities for training and safety consciousness raising to the legions of self-declared journalists who, emboldened by their blog’s popularity or their scores of Twitter followers, might rush in to the very danger spots we should be avoiding.

For his part, the experienced photographer in question, David Findlar, quite rightly pointed out that:

“Surely it is that photographer’s decision to choose whether or not they take the risks.

“I thought part of photography was the fact that some people in this world do take exceptional risks to show the rest of the world what is happening.

On one hand, I can understand the organisational pressure towards reducing risks and exposure to risk, on the other, war reporting is axiomatically a risk-laden activity. There is no way to completely “manage the risk” to people whose livelihood depends on visiting areas where people are attempting to kill one another. The problem is, there is no way to balance war reporting and risk in a way that would make sense to the type of people who focus on risk (say, risk managers). In a business, like resource extraction, there is a relatively easy way to form a business case for operating in a hostile or unstable environment (usually: no one else is there and a lot of money can be made). Extraction businesses are forever balancing risks to their staff, at the same time, however, they also have extremely stringent attitudes regarding their duty of care. They might put their staff in dangerous places, but they won’t do so unless they can ensure their survival and well-being, be it through security procedures, bullet-proof cars or armed guards. They will go to dangerous places but won’t do so unless their staff are going to come home safe.

What, therefore, to make of a journalist’s request to step near bullets and bombs in the pursuit of “truth”? Could someone ever accurately balance the potential risks involved in a war zone with the potential for uncovering a big story? No, because both are unknown quantities at the outset. Syria is a dangerous war, but sadly, that is what war is all about: lethal dangers. I can understand the reticence of a news organisation to send people back to where one of their staff died (full disclosure: I’ve done shifts for the Sunday Times before), at the same time, when a major news organisation refuses to accept pictures from professional war photographers, I think the balance has shifted too far towards risk aversion. After all, if one war is too risky to report on in any form, then what of the next, only slightly less dangerous, war? Is there any meaningful way to differentiate between the two? It is, sadly, the thin end of a wedge that ends with war reporters in protected compounds surrounded by bodyguards phoning in reports of hearsay. It means, as Schlesinger quite rightly notes, that stringers and amateurs end up dead instead of staff members. If a professional war reporter wants to do their job, then, in Marie Colvin’s own words:

Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you.

Many of you here must have asked yourselves, or be asking yourselves now, is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference?

I faced that question when I was injured. In fact one paper ran a headline saying, has Marie Colvin gone too far this time? My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it.



5 thoughts on “War: too risky to report

  1. As a journalist, I sympathise completely with the desire to get the ‘best’ story. If a freelancer offers a piece that appears to intimately describe or illuminate a particular facet of the conflict, of course you want to use it. But watching the way some contributors work in war zones gives rise to another reason that a news outlet that wants to protect its reputation may decline to use their stories.
    Most are reputable, professional and honest. However if it’s difficult for a correspondent (who’s completely trusted by their outlet) to get a story, it is probably equally difficult for a freelancer who probably lacks the training, resources and experience of the employed correspondent. That puts pressure on them to ‘find’ a story. If they’re aware a short-cut is unlikely to be discovered, they may well take it to manufacture the better story. They may think they’re reporting accurately, however there’s always the risk they get something significant very wrong.
    If this is later exposed, it’s the news outlets credibility that suffers. This could deliver a body-blow to the organisation. In these days of declining circulations that’s the sort of thing no editor wants.
    I don’t doubt the stated reasons for declining the contribution of freelancers, but there are other reasons for not using their work as well. I suspect – using hard news judgement – it’s not worth the risk.

    • I think part of the problem is boundaries, and the other part is precedent. In particular, while I can see why news agencies wouldn’t accept work by an unknown freelancer, it beggars belief that they should have doubts about the veracity of the photographer-in-question’s work. I think, in this case, that setting the boundary that high (either we go or we don’t print) sets a bad precedent for future coverage of warzones and combat. After all, if corporate standards of risk are adhered to, I think we’ll see a drop in the number of staff photographers and journalists being sent to combat zones, or allowed near the action, and from the precedent of this decision, that would mean no reporting would get out. Simply, the Sunday Times (and others that follow its example) would cease to “bear witness” to such events.

    • Absolutely. My comment sounded as if it could have been penned by a bureaucrat! I suspect the problem originates with the financial crisis mainstream media organisations are currently facing. We can’t afford to obtain news in the old fashioned way . . . by sending a correspondent and expecting them to mediate what’s happening for the audience back ‘home’. The trouble is that this can mean nobody’s telling the story. Nevertheless I still remain (somewhat) dubious about attempts (by reputable organisations like the Guardian, for example) to gain news from crowd-sourcing (as it relatively successfully attempted to do during the Egyptian ‘revolution’). This example demonstrates that what people ‘see’ may still not be what’s actually ‘happening’. For example, we ‘see’ the chaos in Syria and the killing and the conflict and anyone can report that. However informed journalism always strives for more. It’s the difference between the sit rep and the intelligence brief. Anyone can describe what’s happening, but you need to understand what’s really going on if you want to add value. (Although I’m certainly not suggesting that all journalistic reports do this, either!)

    • I was actually having a discussion about something similar with a student the other day on a tangential subject. I think the particular value of correspondents, or reliable freelancers, over crowd sourcing is that there is an element of trust in good journalists that is almost impossible to precisely determine, yet enables their work to be used as evidence. For example, I think Mark Urban is a very good journalist, and the books he writes tend to be trustworthy (particularly since most of the details in Task Force Black are turning out correct). Whereas there’s all sorts of “current journalism” books that I probably wouldn’t rely on for academic work, because I can’t necessarily trust the journalist (see: the NYT/WP’s endless string of “unnamed govt sources” stories).

  2. Dear Jack,
    Yes. I’m writing a book, “Stop Press” (geddit!), about the much lamented ‘death of journalism’. I think it’s naive to look back on any golden age of reporting, because that just didn’t exist. But the key point you make is that some journalists, for some reason, appear to see and understand what’s going on. Mark Urban is an obvious example. I know when I was embedded in Afghanistan I thought I was reporting what was going on . . . and I was, in a way. However when I travelled with the Pakistan army in the bad-lands on their side of the border I got another, very different perspective about the strategic failure of the mission, for all its tactical successes. Each story is just a single facet of the truth. It takes a long time to reveal the diamond at the centre.

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