Getting the story: the risks of war reporting

English: Tim Hetherington at a photo session i...

English: Tim Hetherington at a photo session in Huambo, Angola in 2002. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I write fiction and only fiction. Despite a short, inglorious spate as a newspaper intern in my teen years, covering low-level court cases, I live in the decidedly safe world of my imagination. (I will get back to that internship later.) I am privileged to toy with words as if they are play-dough, stretching and moulding the reality I see fit to create for my stories.

I have tremendous respect for those other purveyors of words: journalists who speak truth to power, who use column inches to uncover crime and highlight injustice. I have a particular admiration of war correspondents, who cover the truth of war at great personal risk, in situations where few of us would choose to go, to shed light on atrocities that governments, paramilitary groups and warlords would prefer to keep hidden.

As an admirer of courage that I do not have, I have long wondered at the dedication of these war correspondents and photojournalists. I was crushed to hear about the deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in Syria, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya. The words and images they brought back in their reports allowed people like me to get a glimpse into the reality of the all too-many conflicts that scar the surface of this earth. The words they delivered under fire were clear, sharp and ringing with hard truth, expensive in blood, fear and material resources. These are tremendous stakes.

The price of war reporting by veteran correspondents and freelancers is addressed thoughtfully in a GQ article by Ed Caesar. It’s about time we ask the questions about how we can better protect those who go into the heart of darkness to tell stories that need telling. There are many shoddy journalists out there–the profession is as tainted as any other–but the world is better for individuals like Colvin and Hetherington (and many others who are nameless) who went looking for the story we needed to read and lost their lives in the process.

I hope you read the article; it’s worth every minute of your time: we can touch our smart phones and read an online newspaper article from a war correspondent in a few seconds, thinking that our free access to the news renders it of minimal value. It is not. It has come at a tremendous price.

As for the newspaper internship I held for a few weeks one summer so long ago… I was mentored by a kind young man who was patient and encouraging as I nervously typed my first clumsy columns for the local newspaper back in the 80’s. His name was Stephen Farrell… the Stephen Farrell who later went on to become a Middle East correspondent for The Times and The New York Times and was kidnapped twice, once in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. He is safe and well, thankfully, and still dedicated to his profession.