There is a discussion currently underway surrounding issues related to young and inexperienced journalists reporting from conflict zones.

The conversation started on Twitter during the battles for Benghazi and Tripoli, picked up when it landed on the New York Times Lens photography blog, and now continues at Guardian.co.uk, on personal websites such as Pakistan correspondent’s Rob Crilly, and, of course, on Twitter.

Readers are encouraged to view those articles before continuing.

Now, writing as a journalist with a few years experience but nothing in conflict zones, I will weigh in.

No doubt, this year has seen a flood of young reporters flock to career opportunities created by the ongoing Arab Spring.

“There are an unbelievable number of young kids running around Libya with cameras,” remarked Tim Hetherington, just months before he and Chris Hondros were killed in Misrata, Libya. Clearly, veteran conflict photographers have every right and reason to express alarm.

“The idea of a 20-year-old running around Libya with a cellphone and no flak jacket is, frankly, quite disturbing,” wrote Michael Kamber in the New York Times piece linked above. “It conveys a disrespect for the profession and for the civilians involved and it incorporates a certain callousness, at least in my opinion, toward the gods of war.”

More on point, it is not just these young journalists' lives that are increasingly put at heightened levels of risk.

The circumstances of conflicts often force journalists and photographers to move in groups. That means that if one goes down, it’s a problem for all. It also means that you would like the guy or girl next to you to know how to keep pressure on a bullet wound – veterans likely will know how to do that; first-timers will be prone to panic.

But let us flip the coin and also place all of this in context.

The glory days of Phnom Penh's foreign correspondent’s club are over.

With the slow collapse of print coupled with the global recession, media corporations have retracted international operations as fast as they can get the “sold” signs up on foreign bureaus.

Increasingly, I believe, news is produced by the sort of young and inexperienced journalist that operates with 'a cellphone and no flak jacket'Travis Lupick
Moreover, it is very expensive for a media outlet to send staff reporters abroad and into conflict zones.

Even before the bill for the plane ticket arrives, there’s a regular salary, benefits, insurance, a possible severance package, et cetera. Then, during a war, a staffer’s employer must pay for food and board for as long as the violence keeps it worth it.

And so opportunities for young people to enter the field of journalism and work their way up to conflict reporting are largely no longer exist.

Yet news continues to be written, broadcast, photographed, and televised. So where is it coming from?

Increasingly, I believe, it is produced by the sort of young and inexperienced journalist that operates with “a cellphone and no flak jacket.” I have no analytical evidence to support this hypothesis. But even for Joao Silva, a celebrated photojournalist at the top of the game, it was after losing
both his legs when he stepped on a landmine that he was given a staff position.

If a freelancer is on the ground with a story and willing to serve it up for a buyer's price, the realities of today’s media economy means that the deal will make sense for all involved.

There are therefore two big lessons that young journalists can take from Libya.

One, is that journalists and photographers can die. Libya killed 12, and that was a short war. (Many more were kidnapped or otherwise
held captive 35 in a single episode at the now-infamous Rixos Hotel.)

But the second is that supply meets demand. With media corporations increasingly reluctant to pay for staff positions abroad, independent freelancers can step in and fill the gaps.

Furthermore, given the nature of the work that we are talking about – transient, unstable, and detrimental to family life – the majority of those willing to practise conflict reporting will likely be young. (On a related note, here, we must admit that a significant draw for conflict media is adrenaline. Veteran correspondents such a Greg Marinovich, Chris Hedges, and Anthony Loyd, have written on this topic at length, and so I will direct readers interested in discussing it further to those works.)

With big media houses willing to pay independents, and given that there are a decreasing number of doors through which an aspiring conflict journalist can enter the game, how much of the blame can you lay on the rookies?Travis Lupick
So how fair is it to denigrate young reporters as undeserving of the opportunity to operate in conflict zones?

Veterans’ concerns for both junior reporters’ safety and their own are absolutely valid. But with big media houses willing to pay independents, and given that there are a decreasing number of doors through which an aspiring conflict journalist can enter the game, how much of the blame can you lay on the rookies?

A major point that I feel has largely been left out of the conversation, is that we are talking about a situation created by media corporations’ dwindling budgets and a subsequent proliferation of unscrupulous freelance arrangements (as well as decreases in the costs and complexities of equipment).

In the interest of full disclosure, I will note that I do not have a publisher ready to pay me for a posting on the border of north and South Sudan. But if I were to get there on my own, I do have the contact information for editors that would take my stories.

If inexperienced journalists can be blamed for increasing the overall risk for reporters working in conflict zones, we can find equal fault with the outlets willing to pay them.

Travis Lupick
Travis Lupick (@tlupick) is a Canadian freelance foreign correspondent, currently based in Malawi.

You can read more about his career path in how to: become a roaming reporter.

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