Free Syrian Army fighters are filmed as they run towards the fence of the Menagh military airport, trying to avoid snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's countryside on January 6, 2013. (Reuters/Mahmoud Hassano)
Free Syrian Army fighters are filmed as they run towards the fence of the Menagh military airport, trying to avoid snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's countryside on January 6, 2013. (Reuters/Mahmoud Hassano)

The rules of conflict reporting are changing

On the icy-cold morning of February 22, 2012, Marie Colvin, a 58-year-old Irish-American reporter, was killed by the blast of a rocket in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, Syria.

Colvin had been awakened in the early morning by the thud of artillery. She was bending down, trying to retrieve her muddy boots so she could head to a shelter, when she was hit. She and I were friends, and the only comfort I took was in being told that she’d been killed instantly and suffered no pain.

Colvin was almost the cliché of a foreign correspondent: Hard-drinking, chain-smoking, glamorous, and witty, she had been thrice married and was something of a Dorothy Parker persona. She was also driven, compassionate, and devoted to her craft, specifically to reporting the on-the-ground facts in Syria.

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Attacks on the Press book cover
Attacks on the Press book cover

We had met some 20 years before, beside the photocopier machine at the old Sunday Times in London, where we both worked–two Americans who had washed up in another country and were passionate about the Middle East. She was older, already established, and a legend, having been around since the days of the Iran-Iraq War. I was just starting out, struggling to push my way out of the “news review” section and onto the foreign desk. (I eventually bullied my way into a reporting assignment in Bosnia, and my career as a conflict journalist began.)

Colvin’s death was a wake-up call for many in our field. Colvin was a professional to the end–she had walked over the Georgian mountains to report the Chechen War (getting lost in the process and having to be rescued by helicopter) and had been badly injured reporting in Sri Lanka and lost an eye. During the war in Kosovo, she had camped out with the Kosovo Liberation Army, and she had refused to leave the United Nations compound during the violence in East Timor. She was a personal friend to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. And she was not afraid to stand up for what she believed.

But Syria was her undoing, at the end of a long and hard career. And it seemed to me, and to others, that the country had become the embodiment of threats to conflict journalists today, the likes of which even such pros as Colvin had not seen before. Colvin had always managed to see humor in bad situations. “It’s like a health farm without booze!” she once joked to me about being stranded in Misrata, Libya, during that country’s siege, when she existed on cans of tuna fish, far from her beloved bottles of vodka. But when the subject of Syria came up, we would look at each other in despair and say, “How do we keep doing this?” The night before she was smuggled into Homs, she told friends in Lebanon of her misgivings about going there.

In the time since, the rest of us have debated what lessons can be learned from a war that could kill Marie Colvin.

The reporting community mourned Colvin and went on reporting the war, but it was clear that something had changed. As with the death of another legendary reporter, Reuters’ Kurt Schork in Sierra Leone in June 2000 (killed by Revolutionary United Front rebels), it seemed that if such a highly skilled journalist could die, anyone could. It was no longer only a question of being experienced, prepared, and brave.

The next two years brought more horror to the arena of reporting in Syria. There have been more deaths–CPJ reports at least 79 journalists killed there since the war started in 2011, and though the number of journalists killed in Syria has decreased each year since 2012, that seems to be more a reflection of the fact that fewer journalists are working there than a reduction of danger.

Kidnapping, always a concern, also entered the game with a vengeance. Friends and colleagues disappeared. Some came home. Others did not. “Steve’s gone dark,” came a message in my inbox one gloomy August 2013 morning regarding Steven Sotloff. A year later, Sotloff would also be dead, beheaded on camera by the murderous Islamic State, which had become every journalist’s waking fear. Sotloff had spent a year in captivity along with other journalists and humanitarians, including Jim Foley, a much-loved reporter whom ISIS also beheaded.

Terrible things had happened in Libya, in Lebanon, in Chechnya, and in Ethiopia and other conflict zones, but Syria presents new challenges and, with digital media and social media so prevalent, has attracted a new breed and tribe of young reporters. Another change–which is key–is that we as journalists do not have the trust of the local population there. As photojournalist Nicole Tung, who has reported extensively from numerous conflict zones, told me: “Covering Syria means facing a multifaceted set of problems, from bombardments to snipers to kidnappings by the government, Islamic extremists, or criminals. It is a place where journalists and Syrian activists must operate in a free-for-all conflict of staggering destruction and desperation and where no side believes in the benefit of truth-telling any longer.”

In light of all that, the question faced by war journalists today is how to carry the job forward and continue to bear witness–one of Colvin’s stock phrases–while managing to keep ourselves intact and out of dungeons in Aleppo cellars. How do we remain safe but still manage to tell the truth?

My old friend and Times of London colleague Anthony Loyd, a former officer in the British Army and a highly experienced reporter, was beaten and shot in 2014 after being captured by jihadists in Syria. Anthony and I have gone through a lot together, from losing friends to suffering through disastrous editors, and his injuries were so heinous that he has rethought his way of working (although when I last heard from him he was in northern Iraq, which shows that even grave danger will not dissuade a dedicated reporter from working). Loyd believes that the nature of reporting has changed in Syria. At one time, as in the Bosnian War, during which he and I met, we could establish relations with the local population, who would, in some way, protect us.

“Journalists need some sort of consent from a segment of the local populace in order to do their work,” Loyd said. “They had that consent in Syria for a while. For over two years, most Syrians–especially those in Sunni areas–considered foreign reporters as their likely moral champions and the agents of a possible change that might alleviate their plight.

“But,” he added, “as time passed and the war’s atrocities grew worse and the suffering increased, most Sunnis came to realize that the West would not, after all, intervene on their behalf. With this realization, many came to regard journalists not as their moral champions but as the epitome of Western cynicism, recording an exquisite pain that they–the journalists–knew would never be alleviated. With this changed perception came anger, and the graph line of abductions of journalists and attacks upon journalists grew correspondingly.”

In 2014 I wrote an essay for Nieman Reports at Harvard that was an attempt to sketch out a process that journalists might follow to adapt to the new realities of conflict reporting, taking into account the added dimensions of reporting against ISIS and the threat of kidnapping. I suggested, somewhat gingerly–because it is a controversial topic that often causes freelancers to bristle–that one possibility was a system of journalist accreditation. Even if such accreditation did not require that conflict reporters have an assignment and insurance, it could, at the very least, provide a mechanism for keeping up with who was working where. I also suggested border press bureaus, where we could have some kind of coordination of equipment, fixers, drivers, and the like.

Most reporters don’t like accreditation, which, they feel, smacks of elitism. We also loathe the pool system, which tends to undermine creativity and competitive spirit. Yet in Sarajevo, some of the most competitive reporters in the world joined forces to create the Sarajevo Agency Pool, which saved many lives during the worst days of the shelling. It also resulted in extraordinary documentation of war crimes–which is, really, a perfect example of why we’re conflict journalists. We want to document war to ensure that someone is held accountable for crimes against humanity.

But how do we prepare the next generation of journalists–or, for that matter, ourselves–for the escalating, and changing, threats?

One option for less experienced reporters is hostile-environment training, though such courses tend to be expensive and uneven when it comes to practical value. I’ve taken four hostile-training courses, paid for by employers who could not get me insurance coverage without the certificate, in addition to others during my time working for the United Nations. Most were useful, but others were a waste of time.

Hostile environment courses taught by former special forces soldiers can be outrageously expensive, arduous, and, in some cases, repetitive. Reporters are less equivocal about first-aid training, such as that offered by Sebastian Junger’s RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues), which trains freelancers in battlefield medical treatment. Given the increasing dangers, first-aid training is crucial and encourages people to take conflict reporting more seriously–to travel with medical kits and to learn what to do if someone is hit to make sure that person doesn’t bleed out when he or she doesn’t have to die. In my view, insurance, no matter how strapped you are as a freelancer, is also essential. It’s important not only if you’re shot or grievously injured but also if you suffer any kind of calamity, such as a car crash, which is something that happens with great frequency in war zones. Insurance is also useful for aftercare, in the unlucky event that you do get injured.

Bruno Girodon, a senior staff reporter for France 2 and the father of my son, was shot by a sniper in the jaw the day Qaddafi fell in Tripoli. Had the bullet landed a hair closer to an artery, my son would be fatherless. Bruno’s organization medevaced him out of Libya by way of the Tunisian border within a day, and follow-up care for him went on for more than a year. Because he is French, Bruno got excellent state health care. But what if you don’t have good health care, or any health care, and get hurt in a place like Syria? You need to make sure that you have the necessary support.

Watching Bruno’s injury and his healing process as a freelancer (I am now a staffer at Newsweek) made me think about how I would continue to cover Syria. It’s a matter of strategy. Covering the war from Damascus is not an option for many reporters–getting a visa is extremely difficult and usually reserved for larger organizations that have kept their regime/rebel coverage strictly separated. Most reporters must either continue to cross the border illegally from the north or report from the border regions.

Still, insurance and first-aid training address the outcome, not the source, of the problem. There is still a gap in experience and knowledge about conflict reporting, made even more critical by the changes taking place.

In my proposal for establishing press centers at conflict zone borders, I envision a way to better enable journalists to share knowledge, including who is going in and who is going out, and to provide a clearinghouse of information about things like insurance, training, and equipment. Such a center could employ a full-time security expert to advise freelancers who don’t have access to the expertise of a more experienced journalist. Digital security experts could also be on hand. There could be a system for renting “trackers” to trace reporters who go dark.

I put forth the idea as a potential way to better prepare ourselves for the changing realities of conflict reporting and since then have been talking with, listening to, and approaching people at every level to try to work out a way for us to continue to cover the Syrian war–in all its horror–so it is recorded forever. That is essential.

But it isn’t just about Syria, which will not be the last war to present these new horrors. How we respond to the changes there will dictate how we cover war from now on.

It has been more than 20 years since I met Marie Colvin at the photocopier in Wapping, and I have gone through more than a dozen wars and lost more than that number of reporter and humanitarian friends whom I loved and relied upon. I don’t want to lose any more. I don’t want any more of those phone calls or emails at daybreak telling me that another one of us is gone.

The war in Syria has significantly changed the way we view coverage. Gone are the days of sending reporters into the battlefield in a cavalier way. We need to think before, during, and after assignments. And it’s time we start thinking long-term–as a community with common goals.

Janine di Giovanni is Middle East editor of Newsweek, an Ochberg fellow at Columbia University’s Dart Center on Trauma, and author of the upcoming book Seven Days in Syria (W.W. Norton/Bloomsbury).

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay has been corrected to reflect that Marie Colvin was killed on February 22, 2012.