The Perils of the Pen


The news and information that is read daily on the latest happenings of the world doesn’t just come magically by the touch of an app. It starts with a reporter—someone on the front lines of the action, allowing readers to see some of the most fascinating and important corners of the world. Yet, these corners are often dangerous and filled with conflict, turning journalism into a dangerous profession.

In 2017 there have been 54 reported deaths of journalists and media staff worldwide. Some of these were deliberate murders, some were accidental, but often they result simply by getting caught in the crossfire of action while trying to get the story. These journalists are fighting for truth and sometimes find themselves in highly dangerous situations.

This forces journalists to ask themselves a hard question: do they continue on and risk their life for the story? Or do they turn back and try to live to tell the story another day?

Wall Street Journal Deputy Middle East Bureau Chief, Karen Leigh, left Washington, D.C. when she was 23 to go report internationally. After hearing all that was going on in the world, she said she needed to get out there and see it for herself, leading to almost an addiction to journalism—the more she saw, the more she wanted to see.

Today, Leigh is an experienced reporter in the Middle East; however, when she first started reporting abroad, she didn’t always know what she was getting herself into.

“A lot of us were in our mid-20s when the Arab Spring erupted,” she said, describing how she and her fellow journalism peers flocked to the region. “We started to cover stuff, and most of us were freelancers with varying degrees of knowledge of security and the situations we were getting into.”

Leigh remembers times where she looks back asking, “What was I thinking?” While her naivety was shed with time, she recalls situations where she acted with less caution, such as the time she went to Libya during its revolution without enough money, or when she crossed into Syria through the mountains without even having health insurance.

Yet, she remembers these times almost wistfully, saying, “When you’re in your 20s and you’re so close to the story, and you’re so excited about the story, and you have this opportunity to go cover the story, there is nothing that is going to stop you.”

Asia News Editor for the Wall Street Journal, Troy McCullough, gave more insight on the dangers of working abroad. Stationed in Hong Kong, McCullough doesn’t personally work in a conflict driven area, but he works with many journalists who do.

For McCullough, and the Wall Street Journal, safety is paramount. Journalists are only sent into high conflict areas after they’ve received a boot camp, military-style training or have had previous experience in those locations. Reporters are given equipment, extensive combat zone training, and provided with anything they need to be as safe as possible. Journalists reporting in active war zones or conflict driven areas are often in the middle of the action—facing exposure to extensive risk to cover the story and to shine a light on what is happening in the world.

It’s not always just war zones that present dangerous situations. Journalists work in places where there are authoritarian regimes running governments, which presents challenges in reporting news. Although those challenges may not include the possibility of death, there is a risk of being detained.

To mitigate this risk, the Wall Street Journal has a global security team that operates 24/7 performing risks assessments of conflict driven areas. Working with the Wall Street Journal comes with its own advantages as a large, Western media corporation. For example, the government of China would be very reluctant to detain a Western journalist working for a large western media organization. It has happened in the past, but it creates a big diplomatic stir that is generally avoided.

This advantage doesn’t necessarily extend everywhere. In places like Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam, the governments do not always look warmly at Western media organizations.

“If you write articles that are critical about them, or they perceive to be critical about them, that does put reporters at risk of violating local laws,” McCullough said.

In Thailand, there are very strict laws about what journalists can report on regarding Thailand’s monarchy and king; articles have to be written carefully, edited extensively and vetted for the safety of the writers.

“Under Thai law you can arrest a journalist who has written something that is perceived as critical to the monarchy–it’s a very real threat,” McCullough said. “So we will go so far as turning off all comments that appear with stories out of Thailand that are based on the monarchy. We don’t even want to risk having [social media] comments that may say something critical, which can then be pinned on us,” he said.

McCullough explained that the Wall Street Journal doesn’t shy away from trying to cover the news. While there are challenges, journalists continue to cover the news aggressively, fairly and truthfully.

There are many dangers journalists face abroad, but there is a distinction between the dangers that American journalists face versus non-American journalists when reporting in countries. Specifically, reporters who are national to the areas they are reporting in often face a higher risk of danger.

The Wall Street Journal covers Malaysian news thoroughly.They have a hybrid team, consisting of a western, white reporter, and a young, local Malaysian man. McCullough said he believes a Malaysian national reporter experiences greater risks than a white westerner does. “We do feel that our local reporters or the nationals in the countries that we report in face greater risks than those of us who have come abroad, who’ve gone overseas,” McCullough said. If a more authoritarian government were to crack down on journalism, they would most likely target national journalists first, rather than an expat reporter. Even so, it is vital to have local reporters alongside expat reporters, simply because they understand the culture and language in a way that someone from the outside could not—no matter how many years were spent there. They give needed insights and skills that allow for stories to really be covered.

The Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets, provides many resources for their reporters to stay safe in the dangerous areas they’re reporting in. While McCullough is a firm believer in the power of a free press, not everyone has that same belief, and that can lead to difficult situations.

Leigh has found herself in frightening situations while reporting, whether that be a source trying to convince her to come to his house at night or reporting in a situation that seems as though it may lead to a stampede. That seemed to be the name of the game in reporting, though, as Leigh knows many other colleagues that have been in similar situations where the story they were reporting on turned dangerous and they had to leave the scene.

She remembers the ISIS beheadings that took place a few years back, and how she and her colleagues “all knew people who appeared in videos being beheaded by ISIS.” Personally, Leigh had a friend who was taken by ISIS and beheaded, and for her that was a bit of a wake up call. In those moments Leigh recalls thinking, “maybe we’ve tried our luck a little bit, and have been fortunate. Maybe it’s time to take a step back.”

Even so, she said “It’s important not to be deterred, but also for people to keep those situations in mind and ensure their own security and safety precautions are as good as they can be, knowing the risks.”

While being aware of these risks and hearing stories of journalists being attacked, she knows many in the field who remain just as, or more, intrepid and eager to report on the world.

In McCullough’s words, journalism is “a risky profession, and that’s something that’s not widely recognized, or widely appreciated.”

Journalists make for easy targets for criticism, both domestically and abroad, yet they continue working. Journalists joke that if they’re not offending anyone, they’re probably not doing their job right. However, it is riskier to offend some people than others, and in some places more than others. Even so, it is essential to have journalists on the ground in those places, bearing witness to what’s happening in the world.

Those who lose their lives while being witness to the world are not those out seeking adventure or thrill. They are highly trained, careful individuals who are doing their duty to be an eyewitness to what’s going on in the world.

McCullough, and the rest of the Wall Street Journal, operates under the motto that “If it’s a choice between losing your life or losing the story, then forget the story. Life is more important; live to write the story another day.”

It takes a certain amount of bravery to answer the call to be a reporter in such a dangerous world. Yet, it’s a call that many answer, ready to risk their lives to share truth to the world.

“There’s a certain nobleness to that,” McCullough said. “I salute every one of them doing it.”

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