The Journalist and The Risks

New York Times’ reporter and Beirut bureau chief Anthony Shadid died on Thursday in Syria while reporting a story due to an asthma attack. (NYT’s story on Shadid’s death: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/17/world/middleeast/anthony-shadid-a-new-york-times-reporter-dies-in-syria.html?pagewanted=all) In March 2011, Shadid was one of four NYT’s journalists captured by forces loyal to the Libyan Government after they were detained at a checkpoint. Their driver (Mohammed Shaglouf) was killed, and the four journalists (Anthony Shadid, Tyler Hicks, Lynsey Addario and Stephen Farrell) were held captive for six days before the US government negotiated their release. Shadid, Hicks, Addario and Farrell wrote a joint first-person account of their ordeal for NYT right after their release, but I only got around to reading it last weekend (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/world/africa/23times.html?ref=anthonyshadid&pagewanted=all), so it was a shock to read about Shadid’s death so soon after that.

What fascinates me about the joint first-person account is how unsparing the four of them are about what they saw as their own errors and mistakes. (Personally, I thought they were being too hard on themselves. In the chaos of the situation, things look very different than when assessing them during calmer times). This paragraph in particular is something I never thought I’d ever read in any media (Mohammed’s death was confirmed afterwards):

From the pickup, Lynsey saw a body outstretched next to our car, one arm outstretched. We still don’t know whether that was Mohammed. We fear it was, though his body has yet to be found. If he died, we will have to bear the burden for the rest of our lives that an innocent man died because of us, because of wrong choices that we made, for an article that was never worth dying for. No article is, but we were too blind to admit that.

Shadid expanded on this in an interview with Mother Jones magazine (http://motherjones.com/politics/2012/01/anthony-shadid-libya-syria-house-of-stone):

MJ: So how do you determine which stories are worth risking your life for?

AS: I’ve struggled with that question a lot. I don’t think there’s any story worth dying for, but I do think there are stories worth taking risks for. What’s so regrettable to me about Ajdabiya [where Shadid was kidnapped] was that I didn’t feel like that story was worth taking that risk for, and I was too late in understanding that, and at great cost: the cost of our driver’s life. That’s something that all four of us have to live with. I took great risks when I went into Syria illegally and without a visa. That was probably one of the greatest risks I’ve ever taken as a journalist, but that story felt as if it wouldn’t be told if I didn’t go there. That’s the arithmetic that I usually rely on. And those events in Syria over the summer were seismic. It’s a decision that’s a lot easier to make in hindsight. Emotion and, hopefully not, but ambition often get in the way of the judgment. But you go and hope you get it right.

This gets at the difficulty, I think. It’s not always possible for journalists to know in advance which story is worth the risk and which is not. A battle they thought would be decisive to the direction of a war might end up a minor footnote, a source they thought would be valuable and worth risking danger to meet  might turn out to be a dissembler. As Shadid himself said, it’s a lot easier to decide in hindsight. I’ve become more and more cynical about journalists and the news media as I got older, it’s easy to forget that there are still many, many journalists like Anthony Shadid, risking their lives every day.

In an interview with Columbia Journalism review, Shadid had this to say about another peril of being a journalist(http://www.cjr.org/feature/what_he_knew.php?page=all):

The thing I see so often, especially with foreign correspondents, the longer they do this, the more the story becomes about them. I think it’s almost unavoidable for some of these guys who stay there for as long as they do. They’ve seen so much, they’ve experienced so much, they’ve talked to so many people, that in some ways to them it feels repetitive. Their own experience is so much more interesting and compelling. Which is a disaster; the antithesis of what we should be doing as foreign correspondents. It should be about the people we cover. That lesson gets lost over time. It is cynicism.

Prayers and condolences for Anthony Shadid’s family.   

Other links:

NYT obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/17/world/middleeast/anthony-shadid-reporter-in-the-middle-east-dies-at-43.html?ref=middleeast

Interview with Terry Gross, reflecting on Arab Spring and his capture: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=144064191

NYT’s articles written by Shadid: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/s/anthony_shadid/index.html

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