Our need to be in the midst of danger
Wednesday 10 November 2010
Death came screaming out of the sky on July 12, 2007.
Two Apache helicopter gunships operating more than 500 metres away from a group of men fired their 30 mm cannon and that was it.
Vast distances; destructive weaponry; nervous young soldiers intent on protecting themselves and their colleagues.
Death came screaming out of the sky.
And who was killed?
“Hostile forces?” “Insurgents?” “Anti-Iraqi elements?”
At those distances, who really knew?
But we know. We know that two of those killed were not insurgents and were not hostile to anything. Two of those killed were just doing their jobs: Reuters journalists Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh.
They were not carrying guns but cameras.
They were not carrying Rocket Propelled Grenade launchers but long lenses.
They were not preparing to kill but to record.
They were not trying to create a story but to tell the story.
They had no intention of dying for the story, but die they did.
My organisation has a long and proud history of covering conflicts. And unfortunately my organisation has a long and sad history of its distinguished journalists being killed in those conflicts.
The first one died of typhoid fever. The next one died from shell shrapnel.
journalists should have the right to be where the action is. But having that right and always using it may be two different things
In Reuters headquarters in London, New York and in our key offices around the world, two large books of remembrance hold pride of place, commemorating those brave journalists who have died while covering stories during our more than a century and a half of history.
The first page commemorates a man who died in 1885.
Francis John Lamplow Roberts, first in that long, distinguished and sad line, was just 25 when he succumbed to disease covering the British campaign in the Sudan.
The first died in 1885, and the second, Ernest Richard ‘Dick’ Sheepshanks, died along with a colleague from the AP in Spain in 1937 when a Republican shell exploded next to their car as they were covering the Nationalist side of the civil war.
So the first died 15 years before the end of the 19th century. The second died nearly four decades into the 20th. Here we are in the 21st century, and as I flip through the final sad pages of the books, pages that we add to with depressing regularity, I see that in the first decade of this century, Reuters has already lost 12 employees. That is a rate of more than one a year, tragedy striking down without regard for age or experience or nationality. Usually journalists die well out of sight of the public or of their editors.
This year, however, the organization Wikileaks released the video from the lead Apache helicopter that stalked and killed in Iraq three years ago, video that Reuters had sought unsuccessfully with Freedom of Information Act requests. That video shocked and angered many both inside and outside journalism.
That video also showed how dangerous trying to get the story really is.
It is clear from the video and audio transcript of the battlefield chatter that neither the men authorising the airstrike nor the men pulling the trigger considered the possibility that their targets could include journalists.
There’s no question that better training for the military is important. There’s no question that the military and journalists need to communicate more. There’s no question in my mind, too, that journalists should have the right to be where the action is.
But having that right and always using it may be two different things.
I am asking you today whether we, the journalistic community, need to reassess our need to be in the midst of danger. As journalists we have an instinctual compulsion to be where the action is.
Photographers and cameramen, in particular, need to get the shot to record reality for history.
That’s a dictum that is fundamental to our craft.
But is it fit for purpose?
Is it fit for today?
In an age when a gunship in the air can fire from up to 4 kilometres away, must the journalist be on the ground?
In an age when a deadly drone can be piloted from half a world away, can the journalist justify the risks of being right in the midst of things?
Of course there are no black and white answers.
Sometimes, of course, the benefits to transparency and understanding are such that we indeed must be right there. And always covering violence in the same long-distance way as it can be prosecuted today would simply be abrogating the responsibilities of our craft.
But let’s be honest.
Sometimes those benefits are not there and the reasons for being in harm’s way are less noble: competitive pressure, personal ambition, adrenaline’s urging.
As professionals, we must be much more ruthless in prioritising the exposure of our staff to danger.
At Reuters we have already learned lessons; there are certainly many more to be learned.
That day when Namir and Saeed were killed, they were walking with men, some of whom were armed. There was a time, and not too long ago mind you, when the tools of the trade that would have indicated that a journalist was doing his or her job afforded that individual some protection.
As Namir and Saeed were identifiable as journalists carrying professional-grade camera equipment, they may have felt they were taking no additional risk standing next to that group of men, some of whom had weapons, since it is not uncommon for Iraqis to own weapons.
Yet it is clear from the video that the mere fact that there were armed men present meant that to the US military everyone travelling in that group could be and would be considered hostile and could be considered a legitimate target.
Some in the military have subsequently argued, as well, that since insurgents often memorialise their acts with pictures or video, soldiers have no way to presume that the presence of journalistic equipment in and of itself denotes the presence of a journalist.
Whatever our personal feelings about whether these orders or views are reasonable, we have no choice but to react to them.
Since this tragedy, we have made it Reuters policy to prohibit our journalists from standing next to non-uniformed individuals carrying weapons.
Is that policy enough? I fear not.
I come back again to the question of when must we be on the scene, and when can we give a story a pass.
When does the image capture the essence of the situation, and when is it just one more fleeting mark on the wire?
If we as editors take our responsibilities seriously, I believe we should be opting to pass on stories more often.
But even posing this option raises the spectre that in so doing we’ll be trading the safety of the professional for the danger to the amateur.
With the great democratisation of technology, there have never been so many people in every country on earth who have both the ambition and now the means to publish their views, thoughts and images without the structure of a large institution around them.
This has many wonderful implications for journalism.
It has many frightening implications for safety.
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.
The very traps of competitive pressure, personal ambition, adrenaline’s urging that can ensnare the professional journalist are even more alluring to the self-declared one, looking to garner page views or fame.
We in the profession have an obligation to ensure that all who seek to practice journalism do it safely and know how to balance the risks and the rewards.
As a profession we have a great chance to make sure that all practitioners start making the right decisions.
And we have a great responsibility to make sure that all involved really wrestle with whether every exposure to danger, every decision to “be there” is truly important and worth it.
I don’t know - I can’t know - which different decisions would have kept Hiro Muramoto, Reuters video journalist, from being killed in Bangkok in April this year.
I don’t know - I can’t know - which different decisions would have kept Fadel Shana, Reuters cameraman, from being killed in Gaza in 2008.
I don’t know - I can’t know - how I could have prevented any of these deaths or those of Namir and Saeed or any of the others that occurred even before I became editor-in-chief.
But I do know that we as a profession must think about doing things differently. We have to say “no” more often.
We have to be prepared to miss the image more often.
We have to be ready to lose the shot to avoid being shot.
We must be ready to lose some stories to avoid losing yet more lives.
David Schlesinger is editor-in-chief of Reuters. This is the text of his keynote speech at the annual meeting of the International News Safety Institute in Athens on 10 November 2010. ■