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As Journalism Changes, Danger Remains

Friday, February 17, 2012

WNYC
A protester in the flahspoint central Syrian city of Homs throws a tear gas bomb back towards security forces, on December 27, 2011. Syrian police used tear gas to disperse some 70,000 people in Homs. (-/AFP/Getty Images/Getty)

The recent death of New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid in Syria is another reminder of the risks journalists take to get the story.

Shadid, who had been shot and arrested in the past while reporting in the Middle East, died of an asthma attack on Thursday.

Robert Mahoney, Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York said journalism has always been a dangerous profession but this is a reminder that danger can come in several forms.

“You’re also facing the lack of emergency medical care and you’re just as likely to get injured and die as the result of a traffic accident or of contracting a disease or a minor injury as you are in getting caught in crossfire,” Mahoney noted.

By CPJ’s count, 46 journalists were killed last year as a direct result of their work. Many of those were in the Middle East. “The uprisings in Eqypt, Libya and Syria took a heavy toll. There were 19 killed in the Middle East compared with six the year before,” Mahoney said.

While the number of fatalities is rising, the number of American journalists in the Middle East has dropped.

Compared to the height of the fighting during the Iraq War in 2006 and 2007, when most of the networks and papers had bureaus in Baghdad even though it was expensive to maintain, Mahoney said most of those bureaus are now closed, with very few journalists based there.

He said that since 2008, outlets that still have a solid presence in the Middle East are the New York Times, NPR and the major networks, including CNN which have a few roving around. Cairo and Beirut, as well as Dubai are popular posts for journalists who cover the region.  “The rest go to the hotspots, but they tend not to be based permanently in these countries—some of them cover the Middle East out of Europe as well and when there’s a big story they’ll deploy from there, according to Mahoney. But that’s not many compared to a generation ago when most of the big newspapers in the U.S. had significant foreign bureaus.

Mahoney said the changes in technology have changed the way journalists cover the world. The internet and other advances have made it easier for individuals to go to war zones and start reporting. “We saw that in Libya last year for example, lots of people got detained at checkpoints who were covering conflict for the first time.”

Mahoney said that’s a significant development. “There’s pressure to go to the frontline and get the pictures because it’s possible so people may be taking risks they wouldn’t have before. Also some journalists are not trained, they don’t have a big institution or a news outlet that can invest in training and safety equipment or mitigate risks when you’re in a combat zone.”

He said by far the journalists taking the biggest risks are local journalists. “We’re seeing this in Syria — people are becoming journalists and bloggers overnight because they’re so outraged by what they see so they take tremendous risks going out in the street with cell phones and cameras to record the fighting and what they see.” Mahoney said  this week Syrian authorities clamped down and arrested aproximately 14 journalists in Damascus who were providing basic information to the Western press.

“The news we consume here in the U.S. was bright to us by journalists on the ground who bore the brunt of the backlash from authorities by doing this reporting,” Mahoney said.

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