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.