The changing nature of war correspondence

On the 5th of April, Anja Niedringhaus, a German photographer and Associated Press journalist was shot dead by an Afghan police officer, leaving her colleague, Kathy Gannon, seriously injured.The attack was the third of its kind on journalists in Afghanistan in less than a month, following the shooting of Swedish journalist Nils Horner and Afghan journalist Ahmed Sadar in March, whose wife and children were shot alongside him.

In the last few days the death of Niedringhaus has been closely reported and commented on by the international media, which has emphasised its sadness at the loss of a truly exceptional journalist, who was the recipient of both a Pulitzer Prize for her photography of the war in Iraq and a Courage in Journalism Award. Former colleagues have described Niedringhaus as immensely kind and courageous and amongst the best and most dedicated photojournalists of her generation — her death is rightly mourned and her bravery rightly celebrated.

There have been similar responses to the deaths of Horner and Sadar, as well as the 2012 deaths of the internationally acclaimed Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and the French photographer Remi Ochlik and many in between. These men and women all risked their lives to give unheard people a voice and bear witness to atrocities. They did this so that the people their work reaches cannot claim they did not know, cannot forfeit responsibility through ignorance. The media and public’s reaction to their work and deaths has been entirely deserved. It also highlights a significant double standard.

In 2008, Amanda Lindhout moved to Mogadishu, Somalia to work as a freelance journalist. Along with photographer and fellow freelancer Nigel Brennan, Lindhout was kidnapped by Somali extremists and held for ransom for fifteen months, enduring starvation, torture and (in Lindhout’s case) extended sexual assault. However, the media’s reaction to the situation was remarkably different to the one that is being expressed this week or, indeed, to the detainment of a team of veteran New York Times reporters in 2011 and the abuse they suffered at the hands of the Libyan military. Much of the response to Lindhout’s kidnapping focused on her and Brennan’s status as freelancers, and the lack of support and expertise that this would have provided them with. This has descended into the accusation that they were naive and reckless; sensationalists seeking to make their names by capitalising on the devastation in Somalia with little or no regard for their own safety or the costs to the governments trying to negotiate their release. An article published by the Globe and Mail in September declared Lindhout as “narcissistic” and stated that her situation has “little to do with journalism”, claiming that her ultimate aim was “fame and fortune”. The same article also draws a correlation between the media attention following Lindhout’s release and the fact that she is “highly photogenic”.

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If it is true that Lindhout’s actions were fuelled solely by a sensationalist desire to make a name for herself, then such harsh comments may seem somewhat justified. But there is evidence that her decision to enter notoriously dangerous Mogadishu as a freelancer and without the backing of a media outlet was not merely the action of a fame-seeking amateur, nor that it was unusual. 80% of the journalists covering Syria in 2012-2013 were freelancers and, as such, frequently operated without insurance, translators or suitable safety equipment.

Information is a commodity and, as with all commodities, the market in which it is exchanged is dictated by supply and demand. Since the Bosnia war in the 1990s, the traditional assumption that journalists are off-limits as targets of conflict has faded, increasing the danger and cost associated with reporting from war-zones. This, combined with the ease with which readers can get international news online, has led to a dramatic decrease in the number of full-time war correspondents, such as Anja Niedringhaus and Marie Colvin, that media outlets are prepared to fund.

Despite this, demand for insight into conflict zones from a personal, front-line perspective remains high and editors remain willing to pay for it. Because of the unsanctioned and open-ended nature of freelance work, competition for stories is fierce and editors can pay reporters lower and lower wages, excluding the possibility of said reporters aff ording security or insurance. This means that, regardless of whether their motives are for personal reward or a genuine desire to alleviate suff ering by raising awareness, reporters are pushed into increasingly dangerous situations, to go where others won’t, to repeat the risks taken by Amanda Lindhout in Mogadishu or hundreds of freelancers in Syria.

The media this week mourns the loss of longstanding journalists such as Niedringhaus and remembers the achievements of their work. For years, the ability of dedicated journalists to give personal insight into far-removed events and places has shaped our perspectives on upheaval and conflict and reiterated the importance of widespread suffering. All reporting from areas of conflict will involve some risk. The same media culture that celebrates the achievements these risks can bring and the sacrifices made should be less quick to condemn the new generation of reporters that they are now creating for the same ends.