The tragic death in Libya of photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, caught in the middle of a rocket attack by Moammar Gaddafi forces, is the latest in a series of dangerous encounters by American journalists plunging head-long into the chaos and perils of conflict in the Middle East. Earlier this year, Anderson Cooper was beaten up by a crowd as he covered a demonstration in Egypt, and CBS News correspondent Lara Logan suffered a harrowing sexual assault while covering demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Katie Couric cut short a report after pro-Mubarak protesters threatened her group, as did ABC's Christiane Amanpour, who was warned to leave. New York Time's Anthony Shadid, Stephen Farrell, Tyler Hicks, and Lynsey Addario -- were also caught up in the Libyan conflict, abducted and released after six days.
For many decades, journalists have died, been imprisoned or murdered in pursuit of their stories. Since 1992, more than 860 journalists have been killed around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of the press. Few would question that most of them risked their lives because they believed in the power of the truth to change their world. Lately, however, with high profile American journalists, there is the lingering question of whether they suffer in pursuit of the truth, or simply the award-winning story. Do they fly in the face of danger and pay the price for their recklessness, or for their passion?
A Question of Balance
Bloggers frequently bring up this issue. Some criticize the shallow nature of the reporting, accusing the American media, especially, of focusing on the sensational and graphic, and providing often simplistic and even erroneous interpretations of events, before flying off to the next, high-profile assignment. Others criticize the reporters themselves, whom they see as plunging into the middle of conflicts without appreciating the danger. They rebuke CBS for sending Logan into a clearly volatile situation, for example, and Logan herself for being inappropriately dressed for a Muslim country, including wearing jewelry in the midst of an unruly crowd.
Traditional media, however, is curiously mute on the question and generally praises fellow journalists. In an interview with CNN's Howard Kurtz, Fred Francis, co-founder of 15-Seconds.com and former NBC News Pentagon Correspondent, calls Middle East reporting, "the purist form of raw courage... It's like going down an interstate on the wrong way at night, in the opposite direction, with your lights out."
He acknowledges, "This is the kind of coverage that makes careers," though he denies that anybody was trying "to make a career here."
Western journalism in general -- and American reporters in particular -- came under especially heavy criticism from Japan recently, following the country's devastating earthquake and tsunami, and the consequent Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. One notable article, "And Then the Journalists Ran Away," published in the Japanese language edition of Newsweek, labels the inflammatory and often inaccurate Western reporting, "a second disaster" that has hindered recovery.
The article writers, Takashi Yokota and Toshihiro Yamada, call their previous respect for Western media "a fairy tale (that) crumbled during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Entangled in the very news they were supposed to report, (the media) lost all sense of composure."
American media coverage, in particular, "quickly devolved into a circus," they say. Reporters such as Anderson Cooper, "made no attempt to calmly ascertain the facts of the situation, and in so doing needlessly fanned the fears of the audience."
Striking a Different Note
Organizations like Human Unlimited Media -- or HUM News -- are trying to change things. The organization sees its mission as "closing the geographic gap" by producing and aggregating news from "116 countries and territories missing from the international information supply."
Joy DiBenedetto, CEO of HUM News, comments that Western journalists are "brave" to place themselves in danger, "but they tend to follow the pack mentality. In the end, their reporting is not always accurate."
A 20-year news veteran and award-winning journalist with CNN and Turner Broadcasting, DiBenedetto notes the current preponderance of news covering the Libyan crisis, which ignores countless other areas of the world that struggle with equally grave internal conflicts, human rights issues, and major natural disasters.
"Western journalism has often been negligent in fulfilling its true responsibility, but we aim to change that through HUM News. In areas of conflict, for example, we want to understand the history of opposition from the perspective of the people there, from a variety of official and unofficial sources," says DiBenedetto. "We double, triple, and quadruple our sources so that we know we're right, and we're not just offering one side of the story.
"Are we changing the world yet? Maybe not, but we hope to make some kind of difference."