A journalist finally touches down in Libya to cover the developing civil war. Excited? Adaptable? Open-minded? But of course. Insured? Equipped? Informed? Not so much.
Nicole Tung, a freelance conflict photographer and friend of the late James Foley, like many aspiring journalists of her kind, entered the field knowing little to nothing about reporting in a foreign country, especially in an area of political strife. These journalists step off Western planes expecting to play by the same rules as they did in their home country, but the reality is that the game is entirely different.
Tung entered her first assignments in a foreign country without a flak jacket, a medical kit or insurance. At a press conference on foreign reporting hosted by the Columbia Journalism school, Nicole said her editors never even asked if she had these essentials.
The chief problem with freelance journalism abroad is that the foreign correspondence system has no safety nets for journalists and no feasible way to get them back if they are harmed. Phil Balboni, CEO and co-founder of GlobalPost, spent years fighting for Foley’s release, and he says he has “seen major international organizations walk away from their freelance writers” (journalism.columbia.edu). The case is not that news organizations can’t put down the money—the investigation ran into the millions to search for Foley—but that no preventative or educational measures have been taken thus far to stop journalists from running into these situations in the first place. The news organizations and governments are to blame for not covering their journalists.
Foreign journalism can’t just be about what the news organization needs. Foreign journalists play a crucial part in our ability to get information from conflict areas, and they risk their lives to cover the countries they work in. The hands-off approach to missing journalists is not the way to go. Organizations have to start getting involved with the way journalists conduct themselves in a foreign country so that they have the utmost protection.
That’s not to defend the controversy behind governments and news agencies negotiating with terrorists: according to New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, European countries often pay ransoms to release journalists, and “[American] citizens are doomed by the policy that Europe holds” (journalism.columbia.edu). The United States does not support negotiating with terrorists, because the government cannot let these belligerent groups have their way, but the real problem is that news agencies could have avoided the capture of their journalists if they had instructed journalists beforehand about safety in a foreign country.
Sure, there are other ways to cover different stories in war or conflict zones. Callimachi was a Human Rights Watch reporter barred from entering a conflict zone, and, rather than wait around for a story to be given to her, she waited on the border of the newly-captured jihadist areas and interviewed refugees. She had the makings of a great story without the threat of belligerent organizations.
But for certain hard news stories, the best journalism comes from the heart of the conflict zone. And that valuable work can’t be done safely without proper training.