Respecting the sacrifice

Friday, September 8, 2006

Journalists getting killed in Iraq often elicit an unsympathetic reaction from the public. People ask what the journalists were doing in a war zone in the first place.

The same question is not asked about soldiers. No matter how a person feels about the war, soldiers are respected for the courage required to do a dangerous job, unlike journalists, who, according to some people, choose to throw away their lives to perform trivial tasks.

I need to clarify here that I'm not referring to myself or others who have more mundane journalistic roles. I've had jobs in the past that involved some danger, but being a reporter is not one of them.

The disdain for war correspondents killed in the line of duty largely results from ignorance about the function they serve, part of a larger ignorance on what it is that journalists do in general.

A relative once asked me whether automation would eventually eliminate the need for my job. Reporting was, to this person, simply taking information that is out there for the taking and putting it on a page, a task that a machine should be able to perform as well as a human.

The routine tasks of a small town reporter, although not brain surgery in either difficulty or impact, need doing and are more complex than what could be accomplished by a machine or a computer program.

As I've indicated, it is not a particularly courageous undertaking. Being a war correspondent, especially in Iraq, is a courageous undertaking.

In most wars, deaths of journalists are incidental, the result of being close to the action. In Iraq, journalists are being targeted for killing. In self-defense, most journalists in Iraq stick close to allied troops, which is still dangerous but safer than going out on their own.

However, to get the complete story on what is happening in Iraq, reporters need to get out among the people. About the only reporters who can do this are Iraqis who try to be as discreet as possible about what they are doing. Even then, they are not safe.

About three-fourths of journalists who have been killed in Iraq are Iraqis, working either for domestic or international news organizations.

A dwindling number of them are willing to take this risk. That is the goal of the insurgents who are satisfied with using the Internet as a means to deliver their message. They do not want objective voices to report to the world what is actually happening.

The insurgents, at least, understand the significance of the job that war correspondents do even though most other people in the world do not.

Recent counts of the number of journalists killed in Iraq range from about 70 to over 120. The lower figure results from a count of only those who fit into a narrow definition of a journalist. The upper figure includes support staff such as interpreters, camera crews and sound technicians.

There will be no monuments to these people. There will be no parades to honor them and no public officials will make speeches about their courage. In fact, most people regard their deaths as nothing more than the result of their own foolishness.

Those of us who understand the meaning of their deaths need to speak out on their behalf.