On dangerous assignments, risk becomes ‘normal’

David Rohde’s gripping five-part series on his abduction in Afghanistan and Pakistan ends today with his dramatic escape from his abductors.  His series—and the reaction to it—bring into high relief the challenges that journalists face as they confront growing risk around the world.  Rohde, for example, felt the need, both in his article and in a Q and A with readers hosted on the New York Times Web site, to defend his decision to undertake a risky interview with a Taliban commander as the final piece of his research into a book on Afghanistan.

Such decisions are, of course, subject to scrutiny and debate.  At the same time, there is simply no way for a reporter to cover critical issues in dangerous places without occasionally running into serious trouble. The question is not only what journalists can do to reduce the risk, but how media organizations expect the public to respond when things go wrong.

These were some of the questions batted around at a fascinating forum hosted last month by “Frontline/World,” the PBS series that features the work of independent documentary filmmakers from around the world.  Excerpts from the discussion are posted on the Frontline Web site.

I spoke briefly at the forum about what I call the “normalization of risk” among journalists who cover conflict. As one participant put it, when you are reporting in a conflict zone things feel safe until they suddenly aren’t.  No music comes up to warn you that danger is lurking. Explaining to a sometimes skeptical public that risks are part of the job is among the issues CPJ faces when calls come into our offices after a journalist is kidnapped or arrested.

Participants also spoke about the risk to sources, and Adam Ellick of the Times made a very interesting observation. He said that as a reporter he has sometimes overruled sources who wanted to go on the record if, in his own judgment, it was too dangerous for them to do so. In these dangerous times, I think that’s a very sensible practice.