The Life of a War Correspondent Is Even Worse Than You Think

Reporting from war zones has always been a dicey proposition, but the last few years of covering conflicts have become a particularly dark and depressing time for journalists in conflicts.

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Reporting from war zones has always been a dicey proposition, but the last few years of covering conflicts have become a particularly dark and depressing time for journalists in conflicts. Two recent articles on the subject paint a rather bleak picture of a profession where death is ever present and glory is the only reward.

One is by Ed Ceaser in British GQ and another published just last week in Columbia Journalism Review, is by Francesca Borri, an Italian freelancer covering the war Syria. Though they were written independently by (and about) reporters from two countries with two different backgrounds, the stories they tell are remarkably the same: The motivations for going into war zones, the dangers, the shoddy treatment from their own bosses back home, and ultimately the conclusion that war reporting has never been more dangerous or more thankless.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 2012 was one of the worst years on record for journalist killed in the line of duty. Most were in Syria, where working press have received almost no protection, and according to one report (quoted in Caesar's story) have been deliberately sent into harm's way (to make the other side look bad for killing unarmed reporters.)

Both articles recount the myriad reasons why journalists are no longer safe covering conflicts, and it isn't just because the combatants have become more ruthless. (Veterans say the Bosnia war in the 1990s changed the idea that journalists should be off-limits as targets.) Most media outlets can't afford full-time war correspondents, so they rely on freelancers who make less money and receive no benefits like expense accounts, security, or insurance. Because the pay is so poor, those freelancers are forced to take extra risks, like not hiring a translator or staying in a cheaper hotel. As Borri writes: "If you happen to be seriously wounded, there is a temptation to hope not to survive, because you cannot afford to be wounded."

New technology also means that anyone with a plane ticket and a phone can be a freelancer. ("War tourism" has become a real phenomenon in Syria.) That means more competition for stories—and lower wages—but also more reporters who don't really know what they're doing. They take greater risks because they don't know any better.

Yet, even veteran journalists keep going back because they're drawn to the big moment. They all seem to agree that the glory and fame that come with a big story are usually stronger motivators than the story itself. Reporters are told that they are crazy to be there, but then get rewarded (with actual journalism awards) for inserting themselves into the "bang bang" of frontline dangers. 

They also understand the perverse truth that conflicts like Syria get more attention back home when the reporters themselves get hurt, or kidnapped, or even killed. No matter how many times they report on battles and casualty figures, its the story of the reporter dodging bullets that grabs readers' attention. Caesar even retells the (possible) urban legend of an editor telegramming a reporter to regretfully ask, "Why you unshot."

One of the most talked about stories from the whole Syria war was the death of reporter Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik. Their injured or kidnapped colleagues also make headlines back home. Richard Engel's story of his own kidnapping is almost certainly his most talked about, and their are many other reporters still hoping to be rescued. Even the post you're reading now is proof that it's personal stories that drive interest in the larger conflict.

The most remarkable thing about war reporting is that anyone does it all, and that despite the sad tales recounted here, it isn't going away. Even though Caesar's story reveals that one of the celebrated war reporters of his generation, Sebastian Junger, has vowed never to cover a war again, most will go back. Borri's essay is a litany of her own fears and the indignities suffered from colleagues, yet she doesn't seem ready to give it up. Even as she laments that all her efforts may have been for nothing:

"The truth is, we are failures. Two years on, our readers barely remember where Damascus is, and the world instinctively describes what’s happening in Syria as “that mayhem,” because nobody understands anything about Syria—only blood, blood, blood."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.