The world of journalism lost two giants of the trade last month with the deaths of Anthony Shadid, the Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, and Marie Colvin, a veteran war correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times.
Both died in Syria — Shadid from a fatal asthma attack while heading to the Turkish border after spending several days with the rebel Free Syrian Army, and Colvin from an exploding artillery shell in Homs from where she had been reporting for a week.
Their deaths have provoked once more, among journalists covering conflict zones, deep introspection on how to assess the critical balance between the need to report a story to the outside world and the risks involved in obtaining it. The demands to produce material combined with ever growing numbers of correspondents covering the same story — from newly arrived hopefuls looking for a big break to seasoned veterans — have increased the sense of competition among reporters.
Shadid’s moving memorial at the American University of Beirut attracted a large number of colleagues, many of whom had flown in for the occasion from points across the Middle East, Europe and even the United States. During the lengthy drinks that followed, a leading topic of conversation was the dangers involved in infiltrating Syria to report on conditions on the ground as both Shadid and Colvin had done. More and more journalists are undertaking the perilous trip to sneak across the border to spend a few days with the Free Syrian Army or besieged civilian populations, providing crucial eyewitness accounts to supplement the flow of often unverified cell phone footage or reports offered by so-called ‘citizen journalists’.
Few doubt the importance of the story. After all, the fate of Syria in the coming months has the potential to reshape the geo-political map of the Middle East, and not necessarily to the collective good.
The violence wracking the country and the tragic examples of Shadid and Colvin, among other foreign journalists who have died or been wounded in Syria, is causing many to err on the side of caution. One brave journalist I know who covered the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa, and has been kidnapped twice, told me that he was stepping aside from the Syria story. Too many close calls and a recent marriage had changed his perspective.
Gathering as much information about the situation on the ground is critical, which is then weighed with the importance of the story and personal factors. A war reporter who is well established, middle-aged and married with children has much more to balance in his or her decisions than an ambitious single 25-year-old just embarking upon a career. But there is also the dreadful burden of peer pressure. When one reporter takes the plunge and survives with a scoop, his competitors feel compelled to do the same or better. Then there is the not-so-subtle pressure from newspaper editors — “I see Smith of the [rival] Daily Standard got into Homs, would you be interested in having a crack at it? No pressure of course, just wanted to check…” An outright refusal could jeopardize one’s career, but accepting the assignment could get you killed.
How does one calculate acceptable risk? There is risk in crossing a road (especially in Beirut), but we all do it. And the more often we cross the road, the more confident we feel and the sense of risk diminishes. That’s when we blithely march across a busy street while sending text messages on a cell phone with barely a sideways glance and end up squashed like a bug on a truck’s radiator. War reporting is similar. The fear factor is highest usually when taking the first step — whether it is following troops into battle, driving down a highway notorious for roadside bomb ambushes or passing through kidnapping territory. Once that Rubicon has been crossed safely, there is a temptation to push on to the next level of risk. But surviving a succession of dire situations can breed complacency, which in turn leads one to take ever greater risks.
Of course, the level of acceptable risk is different for everyone, but the heartbreaking examples of Shadid and Colvin are sobering reminders that the risks are deadly real. No one can plan for all possible contingencies, and even decades of experience offer no shield against that moment unforeseen.