Freelancers cover a dangerous war zone with no front lines

08/25/2014 11:04 AM

08/25/2014 11:05 AM

“Conflict zones can be covered safely,” James Foley told students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2011. “This can be done. But you have to be very careful.”

He had just spent 44 days in captivity in Libya, held by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Until his capture, Foley had been reporting on the conflict for GlobalPost.

A few weeks after his talk at the Evanston, Ill., campus, he was in Medill’s Washington newsroom, where he’d been my student in 2007. “Every day I want to go back,” he told the students, who were engrossed in his tale of capture, captivity and release.

But being careful while covering conflicts has gotten a lot harder recently. The fighting in Libya and Syria, where Foley reported before he was captured and killed by Islamic State militants, has created a new type of conflict reporting, because the front lines are everywhere – and nowhere.

It’s more dangerous on the ground because of this. News organizations know this, and many are not sending reporters to these conflict areas. They are relying more on freelancers, not only because of the danger but also because so many foreign bureaus have been closed. From 2003 to 2010, the number of foreign correspondents employed by newspapers and wire services fell from 307 to 234, including contract writers such as freelancers, according to a 2011 study from the American Journalism Review. And between 1998 and 2010, 20 newspapers and media companies closed their foreign bureaus.

Being careful today may mean being confined to a very small theater of operations — or avoiding the risk altogether. The cost of taking risks is real, as Jim’s death so painfully reminds us.

As a professor who also runs the Washington Program of the Medill School of Journalism, I taught Jim five days a week for three months when he was a graduate student reporting on national security issues in the fall of 2007. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but some students leave a lasting impression.

Jim, who was in his 30s and older than most of the others, with a teaching career behind him, was a serious student. He knew exactly what he wanted to do by the time he got to Washington: cover wars around the world, starting with Afghanistan and Iraq.

He was quiet, but his passion for foreign reporting was clear, and he worked hard at Medill to prepare himself. In Medill’s Chicago newsroom, he demonstrated an ability to get tough stories. One told of a playground being built next to a factory with a history of environmental violations.

In Washington he took on the national security beat, writing about military recruitment and retention problems, including a piece on the top recruiter for the Army National Guard, who happened to be in Fort Wayne, Ind. That contact helped him later embed with the Indiana National Guard in Iraq. He also enrolled in my class on conflicts, terrorism and national security.

The conflicts class gave Jim some basics on how to operate in dangerous areas, and after graduating he took further hazardous-environment training, which teaches journalists how to assess and cope with risks around them. He and I talked about the risks in going into dangerous areas as a freelancer, but it was clear that he was going to follow his passion. He wanted to tell stories about how U.S. policy looks on the ground during conflicts.

When Jim embedded with the Indiana National Guard in Iraq, and later when he reported from Afghanistan for GlobalPost, “there were pretty defined lines,” said GlobalPost President Phil Balboni.

But in Jim’s two next reporting targets, Libya and Syria, divisions between the warring parties were far less clear. Journalists in Libya were often in harm’s way because of fluid front lines. In the early days of the Syria uprising, reporters seemed relatively safe, even when covering the rebels, who saw them as vehicles for spreading the word about their struggles against President Bashar Assad. But as jihadists infiltrated the rebel movement, it became increasingly dangerous for journalists to venture outside Damascus.

“We were all learning how to cope with this new type of conflict where we reporters had an opportunity to be in the midst of it with no government minders,” Balboni said. “. . . They had to be smart and careful. That is certainly true in Syria as well.”

According to Reporters Without Borders, 39 professional journalists, 12 of them foreigners, have been killed in Syria since March 2011, when the conflict began. A freelance journalist who was writing for McClatchy Newspapers and The Washington Post, Austin Tice, has been held captive since August 2012.

“There is a lot of loneliness and isolation,” Jim told Medill students during that talk in 2011. “You need to talk to a lot of people about the realities of this kind of stuff” before heading into a war zone.

As Jim spoke to my students about his experience in Libya, I reflected on how much he had grown as a reporter. But I also worried. “You should take a desk job editing,” I suggested to him, maybe at GlobalPost’s headquarters in Boston.

Why don’t you spend time with your family, give your mom a break from worrying? I said. I’d met his mother, Diane, during one of her trips to Washington to talk to government officials about securing her son’s release.

Jim agreed and said he’d give it a shot.

Balboni told me that “it was great having him” in Boston, “but he was obviously like a caged lion.” Passion prevailed. Jim wasn’t a desk guy. Later that year, he headed back into Libya.

“I’m drawn to the front lines,” he told the Medill students.

Jim was at the front lines, blurred or nonexistent as they are in today’s conflicts, when he was captured. He believed, rightly, that giving Americans a complete picture of the Syrian conflict means going beyond officials’ statements. Jim also knew well that the cost of getting the truth could be high.

But the cost in not getting the full story is real, too — we have fewer witnesses to the historic events unfolding in Syria and elsewhere.

Ellen Shearer, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is a co-director of Medill’s National Security Journalism Initiative.

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