A conflict zone in Sri Lanka, Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife
I’ve blogged here several times about Amanda Lindhout, a young woman from Alberta who was kidnapped and tortured over a period of 15 months in Somalia while reporting a story there, recently released.
The New York Times’ Canadian stringer, Ian Austen, took a look at Lindhout’s slim resume and credentials this week and raised the question — should anyone with ambition and a plane ticket call themselves a journalist and head for the nearest hot spot?
Like the word “art” or “antique”, “journalist” is a word with no clear, precise or official definition. It’s also a handy title stretched mighty thin, claimed because they can by armies of people who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, are stringing for teeny, tiny news outlets paying them pennies and who place themselves in harm’s way and expect their government, or families, or news outlets (who don’t think enough of them to actually put them on staff and thereby take some responsibility for them) to come rescue them.
We’ve all met them while we’re out on assignment, shrugged off their hopeless newbie-ness and moved on with our own work. But it’s one thing in Brooklyn, quite another in Baghdad.
This question of credentialing and clips is a fair question, for a number of reasons. Even the most seasoned, savvy and prepared of journalists — and photographers and cameramen — can face very real danger when reporting overseas, as The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl and The New York Times’ David Rhode found out. Those backed by the money, power and arguable political clout of a major media organization can afford, and pay thousands of dollars to, their fixers, interpreters, bodyguards, people who know the local territory, customs and can usually read the signs of danger. The rest are on their own, to their own detriment, as Lindhout discovered.
Anyone who’s spent most or all of their life in a nation not at war or scraping through the aftermath of a natural disaster really can’t imagine the terror or the insanity of what happens when even basic infrastructure just doesn’t work anymore.
I caught the last commercial flight out of Caracas’ airport in December 1999 after a landslide devastated the area around that city. It’s difficult to convey the horror I saw and felt — a six-lane highway that had become a lake of brown water; entire hillsides scraped bare of their homes, and residents. I made the United flight back to New York with eight minutes to spare, it had been so challenging to even get to the airport by one bus and two taxis due to the flooding.
The friend I’d traveled with, both of us as couriers (i.e. not holding our own tickets) was trapped for days and had to be rescued, with many locals, by the Venezuelan navy. She suffered PTSD for months as a result.
And that was a vacation that went very badly wrong — not something we deliberately sought out.
Someone like Lindhout, who hungered for adventure and clips like hundreds of others have done before her, had no journalism training, few clips, little prep and no such institutional backup. It’s scary, and difficult, enough with that backup.
My partner — who is letting me tell his story with great reluctance, as so many colleagues have faced this, or worse — was sent for six weeks at Christmas to Bosnia to photograph it for the Times. I tell his story not because he wants credit, (he hates this sort of attention), but because it details some of what can happen with the best of prep and training.
He twice found himself in serious danger. He had never done an overseas war assignment, but knew enough, and, perhaps most crucially, consulted colleagues with this sort of experience, to take energy bars, water, warm clothes, sleeping bag and a Kevlar vest issued by the Times — and an enormous metal carabiner, a climber’s clip he picked up at the checkout counter on impulse. One colleague told him to stop shaving, which he did, so he would blend in better with the locals. He could not shower or bathe for two weeks. One night he slept, in his sleeping bag, inside a shipping container, this in a Balkan winter.
He also knew the Times could, and would, do whatever was necessary to help. It was still a deeply harrowing experience.
That carabiner — now our family talisman of good luck — saved his life and that of the Times correspondent and their female intepreter, caught at dusk on a crowded, narrow road, their rental car stuck in the snow. A UNHCR truck came by and towed them to safety, clipping their car to a cable to their truck thanks to that carabiner. He spent many weeks, like many others there, bitterly cold and often hungry. No one there, in most situations, cared about his credentials or experience. In those places and times, when even food or clean water or a warm, dry, safe bed are hard to find, it’s every man, and woman, for himself.
Lindhout’s family had begged for help from the Canadian government for months, in vain.
Many young journalists make their names, and their careers, doing good work in dangerous places. Every serious news outlet still hungers for live, detailed, color-filled reporting from someone they trust. News isn’t just what a faceless blogger in-country tells us it is. It still, for many editors and producers, relies on the bravery of prepared, trained, savvy journalists they know, have vetted and trust — whether they are freelance or staff, 22 or 62 — to go get it.
But what of the young, ambitious and ill-prepared? Should Lindhout have even gone to Somalia?