Young Freelance Journalists Take Big Risks
By Youth Radio
When Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in a North Korean prison camp we asked Josh Wolf- who holds the record in the U.S. for the longest stay in prison for a reporter protecting his source material- about why reporters take risks.
In the wake of the release of Ling and Lee, and the capture of journalist Shane Bauer by Iran, KQED-FM in San Francisco had writer and editor Andrew Lam on as a guest to talk about the subject. In that conversation Mr. Lam- who works for New American Media- talked about how young freelance journalists are putting themselves into dangerous situations without the same training and resources that reporters who work for the big news organizations have.
We followed up with Mr. Lam today on that topic, and on how the rise of citizen journalism is affecting the quality of information in the media today.
Why do young journalists take risks?
I think young journalists taking risks the same way that young people want adventures. The romantic notion of an intrepid reporter is still a very seductive notion even in an age of video games and internet. They want adventure. They are moved by injustices they perceive. They want to make a difference. I took a lot of risks myself when I started. Being of Vietnamese descent I nevertheless went to Cambodia in the early 90s and interviewed ex-Khmer Rouge fighters. I felt compelled to go after seeing the movie The Killing Fields. I learned a lot. But I nearly got shot one time in Batambang – a barrel of gun on forehead – and that taught me about taking risks. Personally, I don't think any story is worth dying for, but I didn't learn that from being at home. I learned that from being out there.
In your recent KQED interview you mentioned that freelancers and bureau reporters face the same challenges with totally different levels of resources. How much more prepared/equipped are bureau reporters compared to freelancers, and what will it mean for journalism as the foreign bureaus of the major news agencies are cut back?
A friend of mine working for AP was trained for what to do when taken hostage, what to do when under ambush, physical training with the military and so on, before she was sent to Iraq. And she was embedded. In other cases, those from a major news organizations come to a dangerous situation well prepared – with armored vehicle, interpreters and armed guards. They are given a certain level of protection. But we are in an era of receding foreign bureaus and major news organizations are under siege – there's no guarantee that newspapers will recover even when the economy does. What it means is that there'll be fewer protection for journalists out there. Have you seen CNN the last year or so? The i-reporters are taking over in a sense when a big story breaks. "Are you there?" CNN would ask. "send us your story?" Citizen can be reporters. Citizens are ENCOURAGED to be reporters. And many are stoked by it. They become active agents rather than receiver of news.
But they are not protected when they are overseas. They don't get the armored vehicles. They don't get the armed guards. They are far more vulnerable than the bureau chief of AP or Newsweek in Baghdad. If you get shot you don't have the resource to fly out by emergency airlift to a hospital in Germany for an emergency operation. You don't have major institutions standing behind you. You are not insured. You don't have all the right equipment like bullet proof jackets and helmets and so on.
The upside is that, as a young writer with ideals, you can do the story you want and ignore the story you don't want to do, because you're not under contract but selling your story piecemeal. You don't have to go through the traditional route like in the old day of internship and then years of a boring beat like city hall reporting before you get a juicy assignment. You can land in a city in chaos – and be the only reporter on the scene. It fits some temperament but it comes with an enormous amount of risks.
I think major news organizations will rely on these young, independent roamers more and more in the future as the foreign bureaus become a thing of the past. It's a way to supplement the wire stories – AP, AFP, UPI, etc – which are skeletal at best at a time when our engagement overseas are increasing with no end in sight. But the question remains: how much responsibility do news organizations have toward these young writers out there? Do they tell them: Think twice before you go. Take precaution before you go. Don't take unnecessary risks if you don't have to. Or do they say, go ahead, we'll pay for that story if you do go?
Personally, I think news organizations should ask themselves regarding what policies they have toward these stringers rather than just spurring them on for the sake of having more content. But that's my personal opinion.
As the major news agencies disintegrate we’re seeing the rise of citizen journalists. Do you think this is going to be a net gain or loss for the depth and breadth of reporting locally and abroad?
I already addressed the citizen journalist issue above. I think there's a lot to be gained when practically everyone is equipped – by having a cell phone you can record, take picture, send stories – to do basic reporting. The future is one where the reporter on the scene is inevitably someone who happens to be there when something happens. The victims can also be reporter. Think of the terrorism event in Bombay last November. Most of the stories that came out were from people in the Taj hotel texting while hiding from terrorists.
There was an amazing footage I saw in CNN when this student was running out of a building in Sichuan before it collapsed when the earthquake hit. He had his cellphone recording everything. When he got out the building collapsed. It got a few million hits in the first few days. But he's not going to be able to make sense of that story. He's not going to be an accountable reporter who gives the larger picture. That comes with experience, professionalism, and it comes later, when reporters show up with interviews of officials, and scientists, and many victims themselves. But the nature of journalism is changing and changing fast.
But accountability is still important. In India, when the radio station interviewed one politician who happily declared that "my friends are fine. They texted me. They are hiding in the ballroom upstairs on the Taj." No one seems to think twice about this: That the terrorists also have cell phones, have access to internet, radio, and tv. Who's accountable for this sort of thing?
And in Greece, last December, the twitterers who sent out message regarding the shooting of a youth suggested that he was killed in cold blood – shot point blank. The city erupted in flame. I was there. Everyone relied on those initial reports as fact. No one seemed to care what the policeman said: that he shot up and the bullet ricocheted. The coroner's report showed a few days later that the bullet was dented, meaning that it hit something hard, which goes in line with what the cop said. By then, of course, it was too late. Thousands of shops were looted and hundreds burned.
I think accountability, and verifying the facts are still the realm of serious journalism. I think content is one thing but providing Context still belongs to the realm of the professional, mature newsroom. Context belongs to the ombudsman, the writer who can provide context and big picture.
And you won't get that from anyone with just a cell phone and quick thumb.
Also, Andrew Lam's Letter From Athens: Greek Tragedies & the News Media in the Age of Twitter is a MUST-READ for those interested in the future of journalism.