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3Qs: Risking life and limb for the front page

Journalists risk injury and sometimes their lives to report news from the front lines of conflict zones. Recently, a young freelance journalist working for Reuters, CNN and Al-Arabiya was killed in a gun attack while reporting in Iraq. Journalism professor Nicholas Daniloff, a former United Press International and U.S. News & World Report reporter, was himself imprisoned by the KGB while on assignment. Here, he describes the dangers journalists face while in threatening situations abroad and how they need to balance their personal safety with getting the story.

What kinds of threats do journalists face when covering news abroad in conflict areas?

There are various threats: death is the most serious possibility in a conflict zone. But being arrested, roughed up, held incommunicado for a long time by enemy forces is another one. In some cases, that could lead to long-term post-traumatic stress. A remarkable number of young women are becoming war correspondents these days and they run the risk of rape and humiliation by belligerent forces, both unfriendly and friendly. And there is always the possibility of being accused of spying. I know because the Russians once charged me with espionage in Moscow and threatened the death penalty.

In a dangerous scenario should a journalist forgo the opportunity to “get the scoop” in order to ensure their own safety? Is it really worth risking their life for a news story?

Journalistic organizations usually counsel reporters that staying alive is more important than getting a “scoop.” However, on the ground, a journalist may think differently. War correspondents generally are turned on by the excitement of war. As New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges once said, “war gives meaning” to their lives. Thus, a young reporter seeking to make his or her mark may well disregard advice from the home office and take serious risks to get the astounding story.

Do you think news organizations will ever be deterred from sending journalists to potentially dangerous locations?

No, media organization will not be deterred. There will always be a pool of young reporters without (and sometimes with) families who will volunteer for this kind of tough assignment. It’s exciting and often leads to promotion.