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When journalists become the story

In recent weeks, and in very different environments, journalists have found themselves in the unusual position of becoming the subject of news stories rather than the people telling them. First, my Washington Post colleague Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly were arrested in a Ferguson, Mo., McDonald’s while covering protests against police brutality. Soon after, we learned that James Foley, a freelance journalist, was murdered by his Islamic State captors, an act that communicated the lethal tactics of that organization in the ugliest possible terms.

In both cases, the treatment of journalists crystallized evolving conflicts for wide audiences. But there was discomfort, too, a sense that when journalists become the story, something has gone wrong in the practice of the profession. I think it is absolutely true that media figures react particularly strongly to the mistreatment of our own, amplifying cases that are not necessarily different from the violence or injustice suffered by other civilians. But stories like these can be sadly clarifying.

The treatment of journalists in wartime or at scenes of protest and civil unrest is a test of whether the people they are covering share some basic values and views of what is taking place.

Do both protesters and police or the people in two clashing armies believe that there is a public interest in citizens far from the conflict receiving accurate and timely accounts of conflicts? Are police, protesters and combatants confident that their conduct would hold up to public examination? If police or soldiers let journalists keep doing their work and refrain from arresting, kidnapping, or killing them, we know that they feel bound by rules we understand.

But when people involved in civil unrest or foreign wars try to stop reporters and photographers from doing their jobs, whether that means that my colleagues get detained in Iran or in Ferguson or it means the awful killing of Foley by members of the Islamic State, it is profoundly disconcerting. And it ought to be. We want to know that there are rules that govern our wars and common interests that lend restraint to the conduct of protesters and police in the streets.

It should be frightening to recognize how far that wish is from being fulfilled. And when these disagreements are revealed, they are part of the story. It is not unprofessional to make them so.

But we can certainly also debate what the conduct of journalists — or journalistic organizations — ought to be.

Last week, Ryan Schuessler, a freelance journalist who had been covering the standoff between citizens and police in Ferguson for Al Jazeera America, wrote a blog post explaining that he would be withdrawing from the assignment because he had become uncomfortable with the way his professional peers were behaving.

I am not sure that I think it is a sin for “major TV network (to rent) out a gated parking lot for their one camera, not letting people in. Safely reporting the news on the other side of a tall fence,” especially when Schuessler is also upset that journalists have become part of the story. But if journalists are going to claim the special status in these events that I think they deserve, we should certainly talk about whether journalists are exhibiting callousness (Schuessler says he saw “TV crews making small talk and laughing at the spot where Mike Brown was killed, as residents prayed.”) or interfering with events to try to arrange better shots or feeds.

We should also talk about the organizational imperatives that produce such behavior, as outlets find themselves competing for eyeballs and quick hits in a fracturing media market. Why might journalists be hanging around the site of Brown’s death, hoping to capture emotional reactions or bad behavior, rather than be off reporting stories about his life? And how do news organizations decide what constitutes acceptable risk for the people who work for them?

We should also discuss the changing business practices that influenced Foley’s career. Writing about the conditions that meant that Foley and his fellow freelancers had opportunities to sell stories and images from Middle Eastern conflict zones, Martin Chulov noted in the Guardian that just because these journalists were valuable to their client outlets does not mean that they were valued.

“Many freelance reporters worked with no insurance, no expenses, or even airfares to get them home again,” he wrote. “Stripped down, pared-back journalism has created opportunities for those who dare, but it has also allowed outlets to hide behind flaky bottom lines as a means of abdicating responsibility. Radio stations, television networks and print outlets continue to outsource their coverage to reporters who often work without basic protection.”

I would hope that journalists become the subjects of news stories as infrequently as possible, if only for what it means about the nature of conflicts both foreign and domestic. But when they do, it is an important opportunity for us to learn more about the conflicts they have been swept up in — and sometimes, about the changing business models of journalism itself.

© 2014, The Washington Post