World

Execution of US journalist reveals game change in war coverage

Jennifer Saba

Despite over 1 000 war reporters being killed since 1992, news organisations are still sending journalists into war zones and other dangerous areas.

News organisations are increasingly aware of the need of measures such as conflict zone training courses to protect war reporters such as James Foley. (AFP)

A chilling video showing the execution of journalist James Foley by Islamist militants marks the second time an American reporter has been beheaded by captors overseas, echoing the murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002.

While Pearl worked for one of the largest news organisations in the world, Foley was on assignment for GlobalPost, an online news startup with about 28 full-time staffers which is trying to survive as a small, independent outlet.

The contrast underscores the changes that have been buffeting the news business, which in recent years has seen big staff reductions and fewer journalistic resources devoted to international coverage, including wars.

At least 20 US newspapers that once maintained bureaus abroad, including The Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe, have closed offices and scaled back foreign coverage, according to Pew Research Centre.

On the evening newscasts at the major US networks ABC, NBC and CBS, the number of minutes dedicated to overseas coverage is less than half of what it was in the late 1980s, Pew reported.

But a new crop of smaller and less resourced news outlets, such as GlobalPost, Vice Media and BuzzFeed, are stepping into the breach and reporting from conflict regions.

There has also been an influx of freelance journalists who can now report with a smart phone or hand-held camera and post their stories online, all without the backing of an established media organisation.

One GlobalPost contributor, multimedia journalist Tracey Shelton, launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to buy camera equipment, according to an online chat she conducted last year with Digital First media. Shelton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Filling the international coverage void
GlobalPost launched in 2009 with the stated mission of helping to fill the void in international coverage. It’s a for-profit news company but acknowledges that the “journey to become a self-sustaining business is far from complete,” according to its website. It makes money from advertising, syndication and membership support.

Philip Balboni, co-founder and CEO of the Boston-based company, said GlobalPost requires anyone working in a conflict zone to go through hostile environment training courses. He said that GlobalPost pays for the training or contributes to the cost, depending on the circumstance.

“It really doesn’t matter to us whether someone is full-time or a classic freelancer, we have always been deeply committed to our people in the field and work with people setting up careful guidelines how they should work,” he said.

While not addressing the specific costs his company incurred in connection to Foley, Balboni said: “We have worked on Jim’s case literally every day for two years. We had a security team in the field without interruption from the morning I had learned he was missing.”

The expense of safeguarding reporters includes hostile environment and first-aid training, which can cost on average $2 500 for a five-day course, said Frank Smyth, founder and executive director of security firm Global Journalist Security and an advisor at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an advocacy group.

If a reporter is captured or jailed, the cost could run in the six figures annually, including the price to pay consultants and security advisors, Smyth said. The prospect of paying ransom could severely ratchet up the cost.

Robert Mahoney, deputy director of CPJ, said even big news organisations can feel overwhelmed when one of their own goes missing in a war zone. “If you are a small news organisation, it’s like being hit by a tidal wave,” he said.

Journalists as targets in conflict
Since 1992, more than 1 000 journalists have been killed covering various conflicts, according to CPJ. Despite that jarring statistic and the Foley execution, news organisations including GlobalPost, Vice and BuzzFeed, are still sending reporters into war zones and other dangerous areas.

Vice Media, in which Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox owns a stake, is on track to make $500-million in revenue this year. Its news channel recently published a five-part video series on the Islamic State by freelancer Medyan Dairieh, who spent three weeks embedded with the militant group.

Vice spokesman Jake Goldman said the company followed a strict series of security protocols, including risk assessments, hostile environment training, evacuation planning and insurance “to ensure the safety of our journalists”.

BuzzFeed, best known for its listicals and viral sponsored ads, has nine staffers covering conflicts in places like Ukraine, Syria and Iraq. It plans to double the size of its foreign desk after receiving $50-million from venture capital firms in August.

“Since we got into this business, one of the first things we did was retain a security consultant,” said Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief. “We never use freelancers in hazardous zones.”

Reuters News, which uses freelancers, was recently criticised after a young Syrian photographer working for the news organisation was killed while covering fighting in Aleppo, Syria, last year.

Spokesman David Crundwell said Reuters provides its journalists with safety equipment, including bulletproof vests and ballistic helmets, as well as hazardous environment classes.

“The safety of our journalists is of the highest importance to Reuters,” he said.

CPJ’s Mahoney notes that there has been great improvement over the past two decades in awareness of news organisations of the need to protect staff and freelancers.

But the challenges are only growing for new and old media alike. “You can’t rely anymore on the fact that you are a journalist for protection,” he said. “Many are targets simply because they are journalists.” – Reuters

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