Student guest post: Fatalities in news gathering

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Francesca Crutchfield is senior from Burlington, N.C., majoring in journalism with a reporting focus.

With the recent deaths of two well-known Western journalists in Syria, the question of journalism and its consequences comes to mind. War correspondents have been sent into dangerous zones to report for years, but when does one draw the line between investigative reporting and a death wish?

And then there are the ethical and how-to-edit questions: Should a publication publish details of a journalist’s death, or should the story of the dangerous conditions they were surrounded by be enough of a story itself? Should the information be published at all?

The world is a scary place, especially with all the uprisings in the Middle East. I don’t think I would have the courage and audacity to go against foreign governments and militia in order to report and write a story. However, one can certainly applaud the efforts of those literally risking their lives to find the facts.

Perhaps the most memorable war reporting was that of CNN’s John Holliman, Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw during the Persian Gulf War. Their live broadcast reporting straight from Baghdad was the epitome of bravery; that broadcast was rife with bombings right outside of their hotel window.

While U.S. journalists were not killed during the Gulf War, after the war ended, a lot of changes were made by the Pentagon on just how invasive journalists could be. Sparing the issue of censorship within investigative reporting, it is safe to say that the public greatly benefits from knowing first-hand what is happening on the other side of the world.

But when the safety of journalists becomes front page news instead of the stories they were covering, that scares me. The New York Times article about the deaths of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik shed light on the issues in Syria, while also paying a sort of homage to their deaths. A multimedia package containing video of the protests and bombings in Syria and a link to a YouTube video are also included in the story.

All of these elements help the reader understand the context of the journalists’ deaths, but perhaps the most gripping line of the article is, “A longtime war correspondent, she [Colvin] lost an eye covering the Sri Lankan civil war and wore a distinctive black eye patch.” Colvin had already lost an eye covering a news story, and her most recent news coverage had fatal consequences.

So what is a news publication to do in terms of editing and covering the deaths of journalists? One could argue that covering the death of any journalist says enough about the dangerous conditions in which they were immersed. A news story that features background information on any journalistic death and links to video clips or multimedia presentations seems to be a sufficient way to sum up the tragedy, however gruesome it may have been. For moral purposes, I believe it’s also safe to edit any multimedia that contains overly graphic content, such as mutilated bodies, if there are individuals involved.

Overall, discretion of what to publish or edit is at the hands of the publication, but maintaining the privacy of an individual should be a rule of thumb, if not an act of respect for the deceased. In terms of whether  war reporting is worth it, I could never do it. I value my life more than covering a story, no matter how compelling or newsworthy it may be.