THE BLOG

Should Journalists Risk Their Lives for a Story?

02/23/2012 09:51 EST | Updated 04/24/2012 05:12 EDT
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"Now you're talking!"

That's how the late Marie Colvin used to half-jokingly admonish me when I was working as UNICEF's chief communicator in East Jerusalem and would unintentionally hold back on story ideas that would appeal to her. The fabled Sunday Times journalist was tragically killed yesterday while reporting on atrocities in Syria.

Once I came up with an appealing story line, Marie, notebook always in hand, would spring into action and venture where the news was happening, no matter how far or how dangerous. It quickly struck me that, even as one of the greatest war correspondents of our generation, she showed a keen interest in stories that affected women and children.

Yesterday I participated in a BBC World Service on-air discussion on the timely topic of, "Do you expect journalists to risk their lives for a story?"

The question is entirely relevant, given the tragic death of Marie and a French photographer Remi Ochlik, as well as many seasoned professionals before them. I don't think Marie gave danger threats much thought, given her yearning to cover the uncovered and to give a voice to the silenced.

"Our mission is to speak the truth to power," Marie said during a tribute service for slain journalists at Fleet Street's St. Bride's Church in November 2010. "We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians." This was Marie's appeal to media executives, pressing the case to continue investing in conflict zone reporting.

During my heady days as a correspondent in Southeast Asia, a sage Thai media proprietor once told me that no story is ever worth a bullet. Similarly, he warned me that I'd be of absolutely no use to our readers -- or the media outlet -- if I was expelled from a country. "Don't think that will earn any badge of honour around here," he warned.

To a certain extent he had a point. However, when we sign up for foreign assignments, we also take on certain risks -- it's a price to be paid for reporting from the frontlines. As Christiane Amanpour put it on the BBC show: "Foreign corresponding is the extreme end of journalism....people who are suffering deserve to have their stories told."

With so many brave souls like Marie willing to risk their lives to bring stories to the world, I often wonder if this Facebook generation of media consumers will maintain the same level of interest in far-away, often difficult-to-watch stories. I often ask young people if they watch the news: many, more often than not, say they don't because it makes them depressed or sad.

With this state of affairs, when so many journalists are out there willing to risk their lives for a story -- and with so many innocent women and children dying in Syria as the world stands by -- it's extremely hard not to be concerned about the state of humanity.

I won't accept that demand for foreign news is on the decline, nor that it needs to be made more entertaining. But I will press the case that there are more intelligent and safer methods to cover the news in conflict zones, or in disaster-prone regions where there are no foreign news bureaus (according to HUMNEWS, that means more than 100 countries, from Laos to Lesotho and beyond). One way would be to better equip local journalists with the skills, equipment, and ethics needed to bring their dispatches up to the standards demanded by western media outlets.

The presence of both foreign correspondents and local and citizen journalists can fill a role beyond simply informing the public and decision makers. In the case of Syria -- where atrocities are almost certainly being committed by the Assad regime -- video, audio, photographic, and written documentation can all be used to support charges of war crimes. Smartphones are not only recording devices, but valuable and inconspicuous tools to capture evidence that prosecutors would otherwise have no access to.

And as the Assad regime is well aware, the presence of these brave souls is an unwelcome thorn in their side -- a corps helping to prevent the international community from averting their gaze to this despicable tragedy.

As David Remnick wrote about Marie yesterday: "She gave her life for the proposition that the truth of history demands witnesses."