A look inside the dangers of contemporary war reporting
Miles Amoore crouched behind a red gate. Loyalist snipers could be anywhere, but he just needed to cross the street to join the Libyan rebels he was reporting on as the rebels approached former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s palace, which had been their destination for months.
As Amoore paused and prepared to cross the street, Gaddafi loyalists opened fire.
He was hit.
“One minute I was crouching, and the next, it was like a giant lassoing me,” Amoore said. “I thought, this is what is feels like to die.”
As a foreign correspondent for The (London) Sunday Times, Amoore was one of the first reporters inside Gaddafi’s palace. Hours earlier, Amoore was shot in the helmet by Libyan government gunfire.
Although Moore’s helmet stopped the bullet from doing any serious damage, the dangers that Amoore faced while doing the job of a war correspondent are not unique to his situation. The recent beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by ISIS brought global attention to the dangers faced by journalists in war zones. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 1,081 journalists have been killed in the line of work since 1992, and 41 journalists have been killed in 2014 alone. Many correspondents, however, are willing to put themselves in danger to tell the story.
Amoore was even able to continue working the very day he was shot.
“You’re at an entirely climatic part of history and that drives you to go on,” Amoore said. “You have a front row seat, and you want to see what happens next.”
The dangers of modern wars
In modern wars, the already clear dangers of war reporting have been amplified.
“It’s become increasingly hard to know where relative safety may be,” Ellen Shearer, the co-director of the National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, said.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American journalists were able to “embed” with American troops, which means the reporter would join a unit of soldiers and be with them while reporting.
Tom A. Peter, a freelance war correspondent who has written for the Christian Science Monitor and Al Jazeera America, said he has spent more than two years embedded with United States’ forces. He said embedded war correspondents face the same dangers as an American soldier.
“Embedded, journalists face the same risks that American soldiers would have, which would be getting shot at and being targetted by roadside bombings,” he said.
Peter said he had been near the scene of an IED explosion at least 20 times, and was shot at many times when he was embedded.
Sarah Stillman, a current staff writer for The New Yorker who reported from Iraq as a freelance journalist, was also embedded with U.S. forces. During one of her first nights in Baghdad, there was a rocket attack, in which 26 rockets landed in the city.
“At something like 4 a.m., I was jolted from my bed by a giant explosion,” she said. “There was a series or rockets throughout that day. Luckily, I was in a really safe enclosure.”
Although embedded journalists face military risk, embedding with the U.S. or allied forces does provide a sense of protection.
However, in some modern conflicts, such as the conflicts in Libya and currently in Syria, there are no American troops to embed with. Shearer added as American journalists try to cover wars with American involvement through airstrikes but no ground troops, they are in a difficult position.
“There’s no place where one can be behind American lines or with American troops and that makes it a lot harder,” she said.
Amoore, who is a British journalist, was embedded with a rebel force in Libya the day he was shot in the head. The group had received Western military training. Although the group did provide protection, when he was shot he expected help that did not come, as the rebels he was with ran for cover. Amoore was able to get himself to safety.
Peter said embedding with non-governmental groups to gain access to conflict is increasingly difficult.
“Even in 2012, you could have a reasonable assurance that if you embedded with a certain militia group they would provide protection and security for you,” he said. “But now you hear stories about people being set up by the groups you are working with and being kidnapped. There’s [a] very limited sense of security because you are not dealing with state actors.”
Amoore said embedding often led to only one side of the story being told, but during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attempting to talk to the other side would have been very dangerous.
“In conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq, one of the combatants are controlling access through embedded journalism,” he said. “It restricts war reporting because you don’t see both sides. But you couldn’t wander off base and meet with the Taliban.That would get you killed.”
When journalists don’t embed with a military group, the threat of being kidnapping greatly increases.
“Because of these militias and insurgent groups, which are using tactics like kidnapping and financing their organizations from [kidnappings], it’s very difficult to operate in such a way that minimizes risk to an acceptable level,” Peter said. “If you are frustrated with the U.S., journalists are targets of opportunity.”
James Rodgers, a former war correspondent and author of the book, Reporting Conflict, said journalists increasingly became targets during the wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.
“There was a general sense in most conflicts around the world that [journalists] were neutral observers and not doing anything else except doing their job,” he said. “In an increasingly mediated world, journalists have come to become targets because any armed group is much more concerned than they once were about media coverage.”
Rodgers added although extremist groups once needed journalists to get their viewpoints across, they can now communicate their own messages using social media and the internet.
“Groups such as ISIS have decided they don’t really need journalists in the way they once did,” he said. “You might find other groups would cultivate journalists to get their point of view across. Now, as we see from their very sophisticated use of social media they have decided to bypass that.”
Reporting from Syria
Both Shearer and Rodgers said Syria is one of the most dangerous places on earth for journalists because of the Syrian Civil War and the emergence of ISIS. The CPJ reported that 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria so far during the three-year conflict.
Peter was briefly abducted while he was reporting in Syria. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, and he was released hours later.
“Reporting Syria was much different from Iraq and Afghanistan, because there, it was completely out of control,” Peter said. “You can be in areas that were far removed from the frontlines and you would end up getting caught in an airstrike. There was very little sense of safety working in Syria.”
The CPJ says there are currently 20 missing journalists in Syria, many of whom are believed to be being held by ISIS.
“It seems in Syria, certainly with ISIS, journalists are viewed as part of the strategy,” Shearer said. “They’re not considered non-combatants, there’s no protection for journalists, and there’s no sense they’re outside of the conflict.”
Shearer has more than a passing interest in the journalists in Syria. At Northwestern, she taught Foley, one of the two American journalists infamously beheaded by ISIS this year. Shearer said Foley was a great student who had both talent and passion.
“What was clear was that he had a passion, that telling the stories of the war and its toll on soldiers was something very important for journalists to do,” she said.
“It’s just so senseless,” Peter said. “I don’t know what it accomplished for anyone. It’s just hard for me to understand what those two individuals died for.”
A media industry in transition
Along with the increased dangers of war zones, the increased reliance on freelancers in war zones and the lack of backing these freelancers receive is a growing issue in war coverage.
With the current uncertainty and decline in traditional media, many news organizations are eliminating staff correspondents positions. The American Journalism Review reported in 2011 that from 2003 to 2010 foreign correspondents employed by newspapers and wire services fell 24 percent, from 307 to 234, and 20 newspapers and wire services have closed their foreign bureaus since 1998.
“It’s really scary in our current media climate that there is less and less funding for foreign correspondents,” Stillman said. “I think without making that investment of time and money, we’re not covering the stories about the most troubling things our taxpayer dollars are going to support, particularly the suffering and trauma war can cause.”
To fill the gap in coverage, many organizations have an increased reliance on freelance writers in conflict zones. These freelance writers often face disadvantages that staff writers do not face. While staff correspondents have institutional backing and consistent pay, freelance writers often have to pay for their own travel expenses, safety equipment, translator and fixer, a guide, while making very little money.
“It’s very expensive to pay for staff correspondents to cover wars,” Peter said. “It doesn’t mean the cost has gone away, they are now making the reporter pay.”
Stillman said reporters having to pay their own way shows the lack of support many freelancers face.
“More and more freelancers are reporting in combat situations where they don’t have any support,” Stillman said. “They don’t have people who are buying their body armor. They don’t have editors they are corresponding with who know their whereabouts, and that makes it more dangerous.”
Along with the dangers of covering a war, Peter said that freelance writers face additional challenges.
“It’s very lousy working conditions,” he said. “You take really big risks for very little pay, and get extremely limited institutional support. You find yourself target not just by indirect action but you have people directly targeting and executing you.”
Stillman did say being a freelancer gave her some advantages, such as being able to cover stories that mattered to her, and the increased reliance on freelancers has allowed for more diverse coverage.
“I think there are more opportunities than ever before because outlets are hungry for insights from people out there in the field,” Stillman said.
Amoore said the benefits of being a paid staff writer were clear.
“As a staff correspondent, I have insurance, which is also a massive psychological advantage,” he said. “If something happens to me in a war zone, my company will get me out, or try to get me out, which is very expensive. I get financial support, medical support and security.”
Shearer said although all freelance agreements are different, Foley’s primary freelance employer, GlobalPost, worked “tirelessly” to try to get him home safely.
News organizations are facing the moral question of whether or not they will accept work from freelance writers in war zones as that work could cause risk.
“If a freelancer goes off and gets some fantastically strong material, but puts him or herself in danger while doing so, where does responsibility lie?” Rodgers said. “Should news organizations buy this material? Some have said they are no longer prepared to do so, because in a sense they are creating a market to take risks.”
After the death of their famous war correspondent Marie Colvin in Syria in 2012, Amoore’s paper, The Sunday Times stopped accepting freelance work from Syria.
Amoore said he had mixed feelings on the paper’s position, and said the paper believed accepting work from freelancers encourages them to take risks that may put them in dangerous positions.
“I started out as a freelancer, and I would be very discouraged if a major news organization wouldn’t even listen to my ideas,” he said. “As a person who doesn’t want journalists killed, it may be a good thing. I’m not sure where I stand.”
The question of how dangerous is too dangerous to cover is one that plagues the journalism world. Without journalists, the world does not know what is going on in areas of conflict and have to rely on official government statements, which are often very biased.
Amoore said that governments take advantage of the lack of coverage.
“Governments can use vacuums and voids in coverage to get away with things without credible witnesses on the ground,” he said.
Rodgers said that ISIS’s rise may not have been so sudden if there were more reporters covering the area.
“One wonders if the very sudden rise and military success of this group earlier this year came as such a surprise precisely because no one was covering the area,” he said.
The role of war reporters
With all the dangers and extremely poor working conditions, why do war correspondents risk their lives to cover war?
“You are at the center of these major world events, and you’re sort of on the frontiers of human society, watching these people being placed in very extreme, difficult circumstances,” Peter said. “It’s very fulfilling to talk to them and help people understand why the world should care about what’s happening in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Rodgers said the war reporter is able to be an outlet to the outside world for people living in areas of conflict.
“It’s important because they see things that other people don’t see,” Rodgers said. “They have a connection to the outside world that no one else has there. You are getting insights from these people, which you need as citizens and as members of the electorate which we are not getting from our governments.”
Amoore said war correspondents are necessary as storytellers for the people living in areas of conflict.
“Without foreign correspondents, there are no storytellers there to tell stories about the events they are involved in,” Amoore said. “Journalism is the first rough draft of history, and not to have it is a great shame.”
Shearer said war reporters often serve as a watchdog of the American government.
“Americans are investing the lives of their soldiers and the treasure of our budgets…what our posture should be in the world is profoundly important, and it is a story that’s told from where its happening, because its very complicated,” Shearer said. “Finding the truth without being on the scene is very difficult.”
Even though being in conflict areas is extremely dangerous, many reporters risk their lives to cover wars. Rodgers said coverage of the conflicts in Syria, Gaza and the Ukraine show the importance of war reporting in the modern world.
“Given the dangerous these days, especially given those dangers, reporting on armed conflict is more important then ever. We live in a very rapidly changing and uncertain world,” Rodgers said. “More than ever, I think it’s really important to have journalists there watching everything, bearing witness and reporting on it.”
?Aidan Quigley is a freshman journalism major who reports with a pen, notebook and a nose for investigation. Email him at [email protected]