War Reporting for Newbies

It was a conversation we returned to many times as we sipped caffe macchiatos in Benghazi’s Ouzu hotel back in March. I would sit in the evenings with pals – mostly old Africa hands who had learned their trade covering conflict in Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo – discussing the young freelancers who had arrived underprepared and ill-equipped to cover a war.

None had body armour. And few had satphones – in a country where the internet had been turned off and the mobile connections would go down in the hours before Gaddafi forces tried to take the rebel capital of Benghazi. What was the point in even being there, taking the risks, if you couldn’t file?

Most of all though we worried for their safety, offering lifts to stop them relying on unreliable rebel trucks that would bolt at the first sign of trouble, leaving passengers stranded, or lending out Thurayas so at least they could tell editors where they were.

It turns out we scribblers weren’t the only ones raising concerns. Over at Lens, The New York Times photojournalism blog, Michael Kamber describes a similar conversation among snappers…

“There are an unbelievable number of young kids running around Libya with cameras,” Tim Hetherington, the conflict photographer, said upon his return to the United States from Benghazi in March. (Mr. Hetherington returned the next month to Misurata, where he and Chris Hondros of Getty Images were killed.)

We spoke about it for a few minutes and his words betrayed an equal mix of concern for their safety, unease about their ability to get the story right and irritation that they might end up in his frame.

Of course, as Kamber goes on to point out, part of the concern stems from our envy – and fear – of a new generation of energetic story-getters arriving to overturn the old order and upstage us old farts.

But there are bigger issues at stake than our egos. As Peter Beaumont points out in The Guardian, news organisations are going to have to think long and hard about how to manage such inexperienced stringers.

In one case in Benghazi, a young stringer was working for a major newspaper while its own team was forced to wait outside Libya as an inquest continued into the death of a staff reporter elsewhere in the world. The company – and presumably its insurers – would not allow its own reporters into a war zone before the verdict was known. Can that be right?

And the potential consequences for stringers learning their trade in a war zone are huge, as Clare Morgana Gillis describes in her account of being detained by Gaddafi forces while writing for The Atlantic.

“Qaddafi soldiers at 300 meters,” a rebel in another car told us. Bullshit, I thought. The four of us looked at each other and shook our heads. We’d seen no such thing, and had frequently gotten faulty intelligence from rebels. We milled about for a while, asking if we could ride with the rebels when they launched a counteroffensive. We moved to the side of the road in case of shelling, which tended to hit the center of the road. That’s when we heard automatic gunfire; the warning was right. I heard Anton shout, “We have to get in a truck!” But the only rebel vehicles in sight were fleeing the scene and we weren’t close enough to get in, so we ran deeper into the desert to take cover in a small copse of trees.

Minutes later Anton Hammerl, a South African photojournalist, was dead and the three survivors were beginning a month and a half in captivity.

So if news organisations have to face up to their responsibilities in using young stringers, so too freelancers must also take responsibility for their own security. There are tremendous opportunities for freelancers who want to make a career of covering war, but the risks are real and have to be managed. Decisions made by reporters can put fixers, translators, drivers, colleagues and friends at risk.

Don’t get me wrong. I have made mistakes and got away with them. No-one is infallible. Some of the reporters or photo-journalists picked up or killed in Libya had a huge amount of experience. And I admire much of the zeal of the new, young reporters coming through. All I want is for them to be aware of the risks.

Editors who rely on reporters who don’t have the right kit, enough cash or even their own car to get them out of trouble must take a chunk of the blame when things go wrong. But reporters too have to learn that there is no app to keep you safe and that the frontline is a very dangerous place to be.


One thought on “War Reporting for Newbies

  1. I think many editors should shoulder more responsibility than they actually do when it comes to freelancers. It was one of my biggest gripes with my last employer, when us editors were managing a team of journos in the darkest hearts of Africa, and if everything went tits-up… well, we just hoped it didn’t. It was all right for us editors, safely in Europe, but some of the people working for us were taking extraordinary risks. Of course, there is a tendency for organisations using freelancers, who may have a number of other strings, to throw up there hands and say, “well, it isn’t our problem, they’re doing work for VOA/Telegraph/Times/etc. as well, those papers can always bail them out.” With the danger that no one has a contingency plan or is really looking after the interests of the journalists.

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