In harm's way: since the first professional war correspondents took their pens into battle, men and women have placed themselves in frontline villages and war-torn streets to relay the saga of war to the world. And as probability dictates, they also become its casualties.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that 65 journalists were killed in 2007. Nearly all of these deaths occurred amidst war, and today Iraq remains the most dangerous assignment for reporters. At least 127 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003, making it the deadliest conflict for the war correspondent in modern times.
"Members of the press are being hunted down and murdered with alarming regularity," says Joel Simon, CPJ executive director. "They are abducted at gunpoint and found dead later or shot dead on the spot."
Although events in Iraq and Afghanistan have drawn the most headlines and shed light on journalism's inherent dangers, risks arise from conflicts all over the world with alarming intensity. As reporter and historian Rick Atkinson noted in his book In the Company of Soldiers, which details the current Iraq war, "No one could know ... it would be more dangerous to be a reporter in the coming war than to fly combat sorties."
Increasingly wary of the dangers facing their reporters, major media outlets have been applying risk mitigation salves. Since Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded in Pakistan, they have mandated pre-assignment survival classes and boot camps, and provided security guards and bulletproof jackets to correspondents.
Many organizations have followed the lead of experienced media outlets like the BBC. Its guidelines for a conflict-zone assignment require the head of the mission to submit a pre-departure risk assessment detailing the dangers involved, confirming fulfillment of training and briefing, and defending the assignment's editorial value versus its risk. Correspondents also attend courses on "hostile environment," "battlefield first aid" and "off-road driving."
Once at the location, logistical field coordinators and team leaders are then asked to not only make sure the stories are covered, but that all journalists adhere to safety rules. Upon their return, correspondents give their reports and share any risk updates and suggestions for safety adjustments.
Even freelance correspondents--those lacking the security of media outlet employment--have been offered preparatory training. Although freelancers remain outside the responsibility--and liability--of the media outlet that purchases their work, groups such as Reporters Without Borders and CPJ offer information and training programs in safety and stress management, insurance, and basic safety equipment loans such as bulletproof vests, helmets and personal distress beacons.
The trouble, however, is that a five-day training camp offers novice war correspondents little preparation for the intensity war brings. Even experienced journalists can quickly forget the rules for survival in the chaos of conflict.
Atkinson, a Washington Post writer with 20 years of journalism experience, was humbled during an early morning Scud missile attack, when he was unable to slip seamlessly from sleep to potential gas-attack preparations--something he had specifically trained for. "On hands and knees I groped around the cot to no avail," he wrote in In the Company of Soldiers. "Everyone had trooped off to the shelter except Sergeant Mark Stewart, who appeared next to me in his mask ... He picked up the mask from the plywood floor where it had been lying at my feet. The all-clear sounded before I could fit the thing to my face."
Many of today's war correspondents start off in lower positions due to lack of experience. From World War II through Korea, their predecessors had not just greater familiarity with the military but actual service time spent in uniform. Most were better prepared to protect themselves and knew, to a certain extent, what to expect in wartime.
Yet, according to Phillip Knightley, an investigative journalist and author of The First Casually, even though former soldiers turned journalists last longer than their inexperienced counterparts, they are not invincible.
"The constant, unchanging risk is that you'll be killed by a stray bullet," says Knightley. "The famous World War II correspondent O.D. Gallagher resigned from the Daily Express saying that being a war correspondent was too dangerous and that he was going to join the British army, which was safer. He did and he survived the war."
Like the threat of a errant gunfire, certain threats of war reporting persist--no matter the generation or corner of the world. Consider the psychological factors that cloud a war correspondent's ability to assess danger. Some reporters are--or soon become--sympathetic to the cause they are covering. There are others, particularly those embedded with troops, who become a part of the unit, forgoing independent survival mechanisms to support the fraternal structure. Some become overwhelmed by the horror they see. Self-preservation in such circumstances can become secondary, if not lost altogether, exposing correspondents to potential injury and death.
There is also the danger that correspondents allow the passion and ego of their actions to push them further than necessary. "When the adrenaline is pumping, I suspect that they feel immune from death and that the story is theirs for the taking," says Knightley. "They spout a lot of stuff about being witnesses to the first draft of history, having an opinion to tell the world what is being done in their name and so on. But I think that a lot of them get hooked on the thrill of what one described as 'that quick sprint along the edge of death.'"
One correspondent, Kurt Schork, disputed that drive. "War reporting is a job, a craft--not a holy crusade. The thing is to work and not get hurt. When that is no longer possible, it is time to get out." But even he could not always accurately gauge the severity of the dangers at stake. In 2000, he was killed in an ambush while covering the conflict in Sierra Leone.
The remnants of battle can also be found in the injuries and diseases contracted by correspondents working in such squalid wartime conditions. And no amount of training can prepare journalists for the psychological scars caused by the brutality of war. According to Barbie Zelizer, a former journalist and current professor at the University of Pennsylvania, rates of alcoholism and divorce are high among war reporters and nearly one in four suffers post-traumatic stress disorder.
In South Africa, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Kevin Carter documented the heinous act of "necklacing," a means of public execution where a burning tire is placed around the victim's neck. "I was appalled at what they were doing," he said. "I was appalled at what I was doing."
Once considered a member of the so-called "Bang-Bang Club" of thrill-seeking war photographers, Carter took his own life at the age of 33.
Modern warfare has changed. At the beginning of the 20th century, 90% of all war casualties were soldiers and only 10% were civilians, according to the 1994 UN Human Development Report. By the end of the century, those numbers had reversed: 90% of all casualties were civilians.
If even civilians are targeted, journalists certainly have no greater immunity. Conflicts are increasingly being fought by factions that are either unaware of the Geneva Convention's civilian protections or simply disregard them.
"Press credentials and public position are little protection," wrote Harold Evans in his essay for a Newseum war-reporting project.
Journalists are also increasingly seen as part of the combat force and are nearly indistinguishable from the soldiers themselves--particularly those embedded with the troops, dressed in military fatigues and acting with the unit.
Conversely, media members that do not blend in with soldiers are also targeted. As early as the Vietnam War, journalists were killed by machine-gunners yelling "boa chi," which translates to "press" in English. In many conflicts, the journalist is viewed as a representative of that which the opposition is fighting.
Changes in weaponry and fighting methods have also affected war coverage. The BBC's Christopher Morris described his experience in Beirut in the 1980s. "Not only is everyone armed, but they are armed with sophisticated weapons that they are using unpredictably," he said. "Shells are falling all over the place and the air is alive with shrapnel. It's very easy to get killed--no difficulty whatsoever."
For the Newseum war-reporting project, NPR's Tom Gjelten noted that wars are often fought by many armed groups operating under many different rules and regulations. "Those are, of course, much more dangerous and much more difficult circumstances for journalists," he said.
Today's war correspondents are also confronted with vast changes within the media industry. Reporting from regions of conflict appeared to be on the decline in the 1980s when many experienced journalists stayed home, leaving the war coverage to younger, less experienced journalists.
"I used to be naive enough to think I could influence other people's attitudes," noted Sebastian Rich of the Independent Television News in the 1980s. "[But] viewers turn off their sets even though someone has actually risked his life to bring them those pictures."
Regardless of the dangers, media outlets continue to clamor for riveting battle images, evidenced by the numbers of accredited journalists following the conflict in Kosovo and now the war in Iraq, which is the most thoroughly covered conflict in history.
At the crux of the escalating danger is not only what the media outlets want, but which correspondents are providing that news.
Correspondents can file a report from nearly anywhere in the world for an audience that expects new stories updated throughout the day. "The 24/7 news cycle means that media outlets, particularly TV, are less interested in analysis and more interested in action," says Knightley. "To cover the action, you have to be there. If you're there, you're at risk of getting killed."
In searching for the stories to fill that need, the oft-quoted rules of photographer Robert Capa, who joined the troops at Normandy in World War II, have not changed. "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough."
The intense competition for combat footage has created situations where inexperienced correspondents must delve into the depths of dangerous hot spots in order to record valuable clips. Generally, reporting done from the security of the press rooms and media headquarters will not earn the accolades many journalists covet.
While searching for these stories in the streets, the "unilaterals" evolved. These reporters distanced themselves from the limited access granted to the embedded reporter and the term "unilateral" evolved to describe the Western correspondents and the newly-arrived Middle Eastern television reporters covering the war in Iraq. The name was new but the mission was not; independent journalists like this have defied the military management of the press corps before.
Paul Watson reported from Kosovo during the Balkan conflict in the late 1990s under near-constant threat from KLA snipers, Serbian gunman and, notably, NATO bombs. He noted of the experience: "It makes no difference that the bombs and the planes and the pilots are from your own country when it is dark and you are lying in the bed under a canopy of jet noise, tense and waiting for the sudden howling that says the blast will come in seconds and be close."
Members of the media experienced direct threats from their own countries' military during the Grenada invasion in the 1980s, when U.S. fighter planes fired on journalists attempting to reach the island. During the Falklands War, the British Navy made similar threats. In the war in Iraq, however, the risk to unilaterals seems to have escalated along with the rhetoric from both sides. The Pentagon has remained indifferent to reporters in enemy territory and dismissive of media members inadvertently killed by coalition forces in Iraq. "They've been warned," declared a senior member of the coalition force regarding any member of the press working outside the military's protection zone.
Changes in military policy and insurgent techniques are not the only factors influencing the increased dangers faced by today's war correspondent. There is a much more mundane, and yet equally effective, trigger: insurance.
"Fear for the lives of correspondents who want to be independent will deter their organizations from allowing them to be so," says Knightley. "Insurers will either refuse to underwrite the risk to correspondents' lives or demand prohibitively high premiums."
The cost of insurance, it turns out, is one of the most significant factors affecting the way wars are being reported. Media outlets simply cannot afford the insurance (or the security to assure that coverage is available) required to keep their staff on the frontlines. The lack of affordable coverage options, as well as the desire to provide coverage for freelancers, has prompted Reporters Without Borders to partner with a French insurer to provide independent, day-to-day coverage for war correspondents. Most major media companies, however, remain reluctant to even speak about the matter of insurance for their war correspondents.
"[Renowned journalist and filmmaker] John Pilger has said that when he was making a documentary in Palestine, one-third of his gross budget went to insurance premiums for him and his crew," says Knightley. "The New York Times employs more guards in its Baghdad office than it employs journalists."
As a result, international media companies are employing more local staffers who are "cheaper to employ and, more importantly, to insure--if they insure them at all," says Knightley.
According to CPJ, of the 127 journalists killed in Iraq since March 2003, 103 are Iraqis, including employees and contractors of Western news organizations. Nearly 80% of the journalist casualties are nationals. This disproportionate ratio may also reflect the ways media companies are changing their business practices and pulling reporters off of the frontlines, leaving only the developing local media on the job.
The increased risk for the war correspondent is not simply the inherent danger, but the complex amalgam of management considerations, combat situations and political positions. This mix of risks--which have increased in both severity and probability--makes for a nearly impossible position from which to completely assess or adequately prepare for potential threats.
In late 2006, the United Nations issued a plea to protect journalists in war zones, investigate crimes against journalists and bring perpetrators to justice. A year later, journalist organizations are calling on the UN to do more to investigate the deaths of journalists--both in war zones and outside.
Surprisingly, the Geneva Convention protects civilians, but not journalists specifically. Reporters Without Borders has constructed a decree of safety for journalists, where it asserts the idea that the production of propaganda does not make a journalist a valid military target. It also calls for the protection of journalists as civilians under the Geneva Convention.
But can UN resolutions or other proclamations really make a difference? "We could make the killing of a war correspondent a war crime," suggests Knightly, which would specifically protect journalists covering war.
Whether or not international attention can prevent casualties, however, there is another--and potentially graver--concern. Coverage of war by media outlets worldwide is on the decline as budgets are stretched and public interests drift. Fewer journalists on the frontlines of battle could introduce a separate danger--less news reaching the rest of the world from the places most in need of having their stories told.
Journalist Deaths By Year 2007: 65 2006: 56 2005: 48 2004: 59 2003: 41 2002: 21 2001: 37 2000: 24 1999: 36 1998: 24 1997: 26 1996: 26 1995: 51 1994: 66 1993: 57 1992: 42 By Conflict * Iraq war (2003-present): 126 Algeria (1993-96): 58 Colombia (1986-present): 54 Balkans (1991-95): 36 Philippines (1983-87): 36 Turkey (1984-99): 22 Tajikistan (1992-96): 16 Sierra Leone (1997-2000): 15 Afghanistan (2001-04): 9 Somalia (1993-95): 9 Kosovo (1999-2001): 7 Persian Gulf war (1991): 4 (All were killed after the official end of the war.) * as of February 2008 By Suspected Perpetrators (in murder cases) Political groups: 30.8% Unknown: 22.5% Government officials: 18.5% Criminal group: 11.4% Paramilitaries: 7.5% Military: 6.1% Local residents: 2.2% Mob: 1% Type of Weapon Used Small arms: 52.3% (includes handguns, rifles) Heavy arms: 14.7% (includes artillery, air strikes) Explosives: 10% Knives: 6.8% Hands: 5.2% (includes beating, strangling) By Medium Print: 57.3% Television: 26.1% Radio: 19.3% Internet: 1.3% Local vs. Foreign Local correspondents: 85.6% Foreign correspondents: 14.4% By Gender Male: 92.9% Female: 7.1% Source: Committee to Protect Journalists