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World Association of International Studies

Post Why Do Journalists Put Themselves in Danger?
Created by John Eipper on 08/24/14 2:07 PM

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Why Do Journalists Put Themselves in Danger? (Randy Black, USA, 08/24/14 2:07 pm)

In their 22 August posts, John Eipper and Mike Bonnie offered their thoughts as to why journalists may venture into war zones. John offered, "Journalists who remain in the war zone have something of a death wish."

Mike offered a link to a psychologist's theory regarding "thrill seekers" plus a link to an article about why people ski and surf.

In my opinion, neither WAISer is very close to the truth regarding why people venture into danger to get a story or photo.

My theory as to why journalists venture into dangerous situations, including war zones, is based on personal experience and actual discussions with writers and photographers who have gone places where the potential for injury or death was real.

In my circle, no one has ever mentioned their actions being related to the excitement, the adrenaline rush, skiing, surfing or death wishes. Okay, maybe, "It was exciting while it was happening; I'm glad it's over."

My journalist pals only spoke of doing something that might enhance their future career options. On the job, no one was thinking anything more than "get the story, take the picture, is my equipment working properly, am I asking the right questions, what am I missing, do I have the tools, we're focused on the task at hand." We shut out the emotional matters.

Personally, I've not been in a war zone. However, on a few occasions I've covered local race-based riots where bricks were thrown, fires were set, and shots were fired. I sometimes wondered if I was in the right profession, but I always got the job done.

In the early 1970s, I was once was called out in the middle of the night to cover an airplane hijacking when the plane landed at Dallas's Love Field (airport) to refuel on its way to Cuba or Mexico.

Because the local police had herded the news folks arriving at the terminal into a meeting room to keep them from getting too close to the plane, my editor told me to park at the north end of the field and to get as near as possible to the plane that was parked away from the terminal while it refueled.

I crawled up a two-story grass berm and under a perimeter fence in the light, cold January rain about 2 AM, crawled along in the mud for about three hundred yards to get close enough to the action to take a time-lapse photo of the refueling plane. Using a flash might have endangered the hundred or so passengers and crew still on the plane. Thus I was clearly limited to time exposures.

Because the window shades were not closed, I could see passengers in their seats and a fellow walking up and down the plane. I assumed he was the bad guy. In the time it took for me to crawl from the security fence to my vantage point and to take my photos, I was discovered by the FBI using night vision scopes I suppose. An unmarked car with no headlights on slowly eased up behind me, an agent asked me who I worked for and advised me in a whisper to leave the area the way I came in. I noted that he only rolled down his window to deliver the message. Had he opened his car door, the inside overhead light might have alerted the bad guy on the plane.

Off I crawled. By then, I'd snapped a dozen or so long exposures using only a two rocks to steady my Nikon for the time-lapse feature on that old F2.

I was about 25 and I probably would not risk such an adventure again. At no time did I think of any word related to thrill. I thought only of the fact that my job depended on coming back with a usable photo for tomorrow's front page. Plus, I did not want to do anything to endanger those on the plane.

In the case of my good pal Jay Dickman, Jay won a Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of the war in El Salvador in the 1980s. His proposal to go to the war-tone region on assignment for The Dallas Times Herald was turned down by the editors as "too expensive" and which had "no proximity value." We were a regional paper and something as exotic as El Salvador was more the food of The New York Times, they probably reasoned.

Jay was so committed to his project that he took his own two-week vacation to pursue the assignment, paid for his own travel expenses and returned with a black and white portfolio that the paper deemed acceptable for publication. From talking to Jay later, I'm reasonably certain that "thrill" was not his motivation. In those days of the 1970s-'80s, our salaries at the Herald and The Dallas Morning News were so low that some among us with a wife and a couple of kids even qualified for federal subsidies on housing for our families (HUD Section 8 housing).

Jay's photo project won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Jay and The Dallas Times Herald, which had turned down his earlier proposal but was all too happy to publish it once they saw his outstanding work. If there was ever a man who deserved a Pulitzer for hard, creative work, it's Jay. He's a heck of a human being and one of the most talented photographers walking the earth.

We all took risks not for the adrenaline rush but for the paycheck and the potential of advancement. When we later discussed our adventures, in each and every instance, myself included, where a prize was won, we spoke only of how it improved our position and reputation at the publication or TV station, our lifestyle, our income and what doors it opened.

Teachers, shrinks and moderators can express their opinions about death wishes and adrenaline rushes but in my view, it's about the award, the money, the gratification of a job well done, and the status among our peers. And just like fishermen and old warriors, the stories get better with age.

JE comments:  Randy Black has so many great anecdotes from his journalism days.  He related several others at last October's WAIS conference.  And once again, I never meant to disparage James Foley or criticize journalists who venture into war zones.  My question was very specific:  why would anyone choose to remain in this war zone, given the likelihood that IS will kill again.

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  • Religious Emotions and a Martin Luther Quote (Harry Papasotiriou, Greece 08/25/14 1:27 AM)

    The intense religious emotions in the Middle East remind me of religious texts in early modern Europe. Here is a quote from Martin Luther's address (1519) To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation:

    "They sell us doctrine so satanic, and make money for it, that they are teaching us sin and leading us to hell. If there were no other base trickery to prove that the pope is the true Antichrist, this one would be enough to prove it. Hear this, o pope, not of all men the holiest but of all men the most sinful! O that God from heaven would soon destroy your throne and sink it in the abyss of hell!"

    JE comments:  A plus ça change moment, although no one these days seems to be attacking the Pope.  Martin Luther is a fiery way to kick off the WAISweek!

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