Kim Wall, talented young journalist, found dead in Copenhagen waters

By Caitlin Kelly

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Columbia Journalism School

It’s every writer’s worst nightmare — to head off reporting what appears to be a cool, fun story  —- and end up dead.

From The New York Times:

The Copenhagen police announced on Wednesday that a torso found this week in local waters was that of Kim Wall, a Swedish freelance journalist who disappeared after boarding a Danish inventor’s submarine.

The announcement, which followed DNA tests of samples from the torso, turned what had started as a missing-persons case into what Christian Jensen, editor in chief of Politiken, Denmark’s largest daily, called “the most spectacular murder case in Danish history.”

The inventor, Peter Madsen, 46, has been held on preliminary charges of involuntary manslaughter. It is not yet known how Ms. Wall, 30, died, nor how or why her body was dismembered.

Her torso — missing its arms, legs and head — was found by a cyclist on the edge of Amager Island on Monday afternoon,

Kim Wall, a talented 30-year-old freelancer, educated at prestigious and demanding schools like Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia Journalism School and the London School of Economics, headed out aboard a submarine with Danish inventor Peter Madsen.

Like many ambitious journalists, she decided to do the reporting first — and sell the story (one always hopes!) later, i.e. “on spec.”

Full-time freelancers like Kim, (and me), work with no institutional protection, often with no danger training or back-up.

We hope to, and must, quickly sell our stories — as she did to The New York Times and other publications.

I didn’t know Kim, nor had I read her work, but her death — her appalling, terrifying end while at work — is hitting my tribe, journalists, and especially bold women like her who venture alone into funky places alone around the world, very hard.

Freelance work, de facto, can require a sort of bravery, initiative and decisiveness that’s unique to our industry:

No one sits around waiting for the day’s assignment from a boss.

No one revises a press release and hits “send” and calls it journalism.

No one has a paycheck, nor even a guaranteed sale, let alone a well-paid one.

We work alone, often without the witness or putative aid and protection of a fixer, translator or photographer.

Those who, like Kim often did, work overseas, must cover their own expenses and arrange all their own travel and accommodations.

And, as this story did, it demands that we trust others, often with our safety and our lives.

You gin up a great idea, and, sometimes without a definite assignment, (i.e. a sale, income, let alone your travel costs repaid, and an editor invested intellectually and financially in what we produce) — and go.

Like Kim, I’ve gone to a few places to report a story that others told me not to. Nothing as truly scary as a war zone or natural disaster, but — like her — working alone with or around men I had never met before.

At 25, I jumped into a truck with a French driver I’d never met, 10 years my senior, and traveled with him, sleeping in the truck cab every night, for eight days, from Perpignan to Istanbul.

There were no cellphone then, no GPS to track our location, no Internet.

It was — as Kim’s decision to board that damned submarine — a decision I made, eagerly, on a common and basic calculation in our field:

 

adventure + exclusivity + access + firsthand reporting = terrific  (saleable) story

 

And, for many women I know, like one who ventures repeatedly into a nation riddled with vicious crime, I made a bet.

Like female freelancers who cover war and conflict zones, places where women are often raped and slaughtered.

The same bet I made when I traveled alone, also at 25, into a small Sicilian town to report on a complex topic, not speaking a word of Italian, relying on men I had never met for translation and lodging and transportation.

The same bet I made when I walked, at dusk, into Brixton, then a no-go area of London, to interview a male squatter.

In every case, thank God, I got my story, and came home.

Safe — and alive.

We bet, each of us, every time, that we will return unharmed.

 

Tonight at 7pm there is a candlelight vigil being held at Columbia Journalism School, in upper Manhattan, in Kim’s honor.

 

34 thoughts on “Kim Wall, talented young journalist, found dead in Copenhagen waters

  1. Truly awful. So sorry to hear of this courageous writer’s horrific death. You made some very salient points. Intuition isn’t always enough to screen out psychopaths. Especially when focused on getting that great story that could jumpstart your career.

    1. Thanks for such a quick read — and reply!

      Even for seasoned pro’s, it’s always a guess and a hope and a prayer. I was victimized in 1998 by a con man (socially) and he was utterly charming, well-dressed, well-spoken. It is very scary indeed.

      I am heartbroken for her friends and family.

      1. Yes, I thought of her family and friends as well. I’m sorry about your experience with an unpredictable male. I’d like to believe that I am good at recognizing weirdos. I know that I’m not.

    1. Exactly.

      I am so angry that she died, and in such a grotesque way — AND in a major European city (where I’ve also reported from, alone) — where one might have logically presumed one would be much safer than in some conflict zone where you know, for sure, you have to be very very wary.

      1. I carry mace, and am planning on purchasing a stun gun. I was stalked last year, in broad daylight, with my golden retriever, in a park a mile from home. The man had wild red hair, and he was naked from the waste up. The tragedy? We are not safe anywhere, but we can’t play the victim card. I will not be terrorized. God bless you.

  2. a good reminder, caitlin. i was sickened and saddened by this story as i saw it unfold on the tv news. please be safe and always err on the side of caution.

  3. jill

    Thanks for writing such a moving tribute and for the reminder of how lucky those of us who follow that formula have been. RIP, Kim.

    1. I know…

      So many of my colleagues, photo and print, video and digital, toss themselves into various forms of danger every day. It’s what the job often demands. You do it or you don’t succeed.

      It should never cost us our life.

    1. I agree that telling others what we’re doing is smart — not sure how this could have saved her from this, unfortunately. And our drive to get a great story can be what we listen to more closely…to our detriment.

  4. R.I.P brave soldier. These are the real journalists. It’s atrocious that there is so less protection. These are the real soldiers, not the ones killing innocents. I pray that Kim Wall’s soul be at peace, where ever she is now and that she shall get the justice that she so deserves. ❤

    1. Thanks for reading…The very nature of most journalism is that we’re there to witness and to be as unobtrusive as possible, making “protection” (i.e. another person, ideally) more challenging. It’s insane that — in Copenhagen waters — this is where she was killed, not in a war or conflict zone, where (!) there would probably have been others, including photographers and videographers around.

  5. The world is full of people with hostile intentions. I would recommend that you never allow your self into a situation where there is no way out, no story is worth your life. Unfortunately, Ms. Wall was doomed as soon as she boarded that sub, placing her life in the hands of the owner, with no possibility of escape if things went wrong. May she Rest In Peace..

    1. Sadly, true. One doesn’t know, until it’s too late, who the miscreants are.

      I admire her in many ways, but am not sure I would have boarded a submarine with one person, and someone who is a private citizen, not trained military.

  6. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail

  7. I read the stories about her death. You added some context and perspective that we should that made it even more sad. Someone was just trying to do her job and got killed for it. I remember reading about how journalists around the world are routinely beat up, killed etc… so that truth will never see the light of day.

  8. Very sad to hear about the sad death of the young journalist.

    Just a note though, I’ve lived in London UK for the past 30 years and I’d like to say that Brixton has never been a no-go zone. It is a quite large town within London. There might be very small pockets throughout London (blocks of flats for example) that got run down at some point and became no-go zones with gangs. But it’s very misleading to say a whole town could be a no-go zone. It’s just a normal place. In most Cities and towns it’s wise to avoid walking around dark deserted streets on your own.

    Also I was a bit surprised to read one of the comments here where a commentator was afraid because a man had red hair and wasn’t wearing a shirt. I guess not everyone is good at explaining things, but it did come across like they think red hair means someone is mad. Um no!

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