OPC Forum: What Risks Are Worth Taking to Get the Story?

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Lara Logan, the CBS news correspondent, in Tahrir Square in Cairo moments before

Lara Logan, the CBS news correspondent, in Tahrir Square in Cairo moments before she was assaulted on Feb. 11.

The news that Lara Logan, CBS's chief foreign correspondent, had suffered a "sustained, brutal" sexual assault and beating in Cairo's Tahrir Square triggered a surge of commentary in the press, the social media and the blogosphere.

There's no question that women have earned their place on the front lines of journalism. But the Logan case and other brutalities in the recent uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa raise legitimate questions about what should be asked of journalists in perilous situations, and what they should ask of themselves. Of course no good reporter wants to become part of a story he or she is covering. Nevertheless, risk is inevitable in chasing many important stories.

The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl knew he was taking chances in meeting the terrorists who killed him; he thought the story, if he got it, would be worth the risk. But no one thinks less of Western reporters in Iraq or Afghanistan who send local stringers to cover scenes where Western faces might provoke attack. Do you really add enough to the story when you get down among the mob in Tahrir Square to justify the danger? Should you perhaps take a bye next time?

So far, most of the comments have been from the general public, not from journalists. We'd like to know what OPC members think. Please post your comments over the next two weeks, then we'll sum up the results in a story.

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Aimee Vitrak's picture
Aimee Vitrak (not verified) on 22 March 2011 - 5:44pm

Giving the discussion more fuel is news that Lynsey Addario was punched in the face and spent part of her time in captivity being groped. (The Times article reports that "...another soldier tried to shove a bayonet into Steve Farrell's rear, laughing as he did it." But this aspect of the "sexual assault" of a reporter discussion will likely be sidelined or dropped entirely.)

Jezebel has had some fantastic posts about the women-in-dangerous-places question, one on Addario with links to her Twitter updates and a pertinent NYTimes editorial, and another that looks at what Lara Logan's assault means to women journalists.

After a while, the word "sexual" as a modifer to any news reports about women journalists being assaulted begin to take on a hue of perversion. "A sexual assualt?" Commentators ask. "How? Where? Tell us all about it." These types of reports shift the discussion to wondering if women's liberation has gone too far instead of praising these journalists for going after the story even when they know the risks invovled.

Jacqueline Albert-Simon's picture
Jacqueline Albe... on 14 March 2011 - 3:04pm

Your question raises yet again the gender issue, which is mildly offensive to most of us, We know we don’t need to fight “la difference” every day, but are implicitly aware of the challenge. Yes, it’s not wise for a woman who favors Western dress to plunge into an overexcited mob in a Middle East or non-secular Arab nation and that’s a calculated risk we are free to take. That goes with the territory and for an editor to consider additional vulnerability and the possibility of making the reporter the story, is his choice. Certainly most women foreign correspondents want that chance more than the choice. It’s the job:and the seriousness, the excitement and accomplishment we crave just as men do. Of course the choice should be gender free, only it’s not exactly, because that’s the way it is., That too goes with the territory. Please, no patronizing, no pandering, and no sanctimonous moral philosophizing. Just rational thinking. (Full confession; my own territory is mainly Washington, which is hazardous but exactly risky.)

William J. Holstein's picture
Bill Holstein on 10 March 2011 - 2:20pm

What we elders of the profession have not done well enough is hand down the body of knowledge about how to assess risk and how to act in zones of conflict. One of the most important lessons I learned in places like Afghanistan, the southern Philippines, and remote parts of China is to always travel in twosomes or threesomes. Never travel alone. That's a lesson that Daniel Pearl did not heed. If there are two or three of you, the chances of kidnapping you or harassing you are reduced. You can still be shot, of course, but your odds are improved.

Always enlist a local ally who is deeply knowledgeable about the local scene. I avoided getting kidnapped by Muslim separtists in Mindinao in the Philippines because I had three Filipinos with me who could sense what was about to happen. I could have resisted their advice, but instinct led me to trust them. It was only later that I understood the danger I was in.

Seek not to attract attention by making some effort to appear local in terms of your dress. Don't flash an American passport around.

Listen to what the older guys at the press bar have to say about where to go in a particular country and at what times. In Afghanistan, it was understood that the mujahideen, as we called them at that time, controlled the roads beginning at sundown. Don't test that.

In general, we at the OPC Foundation are discovering that the gap in knowledge about how to operate in zones of conflict is a big problem facing mostly young people who are arriving in these zones of conflict without the support of a media organization. The absence of older correspondents based in-country also means there are fewer people to explain the rules of the game. All of which is why the OPC's Global Parachute project could become so important.

Larry Martz's picture
Larry Martz on 10 March 2011 - 12:45pm

Accepting risk is the name of the game on the front lines of journalism.  Foreign correspondents are the proverbial "little bunch of madmen" rushing into danger while thousands of rational people stampede away from it, and this is the way it is.

Women face sexual harassment on the job, and this is an added hazard.  Men have been sodomized and sexually humiliated, too, and they know that's a risk, but it happens less often than to women.  Nevertheless, both men and women accept that danger to get the story.

Of course, it's voluntary. As noted, no one thinks less of correspondents who use less conspicuous local stringers to report hazardous stories.  When I was editor of Newsweek International, one of our star reporters sat in my living room one night, having drunk a fair amount of wine, and told me, in tears, that he was tired of being shot at, and he didn't want to do that any more.  I said sure, and we gave him a bureau where there wasn't any combat.  He had served his time, and that was that.  I think any correspondent has to make his or her own judgment on what risks to take.  They have to decide on the spot, in real time, and nobody should second-guess them.