09/16/2013 10:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Much Is Too Much to Sacrifice?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

My worst moment covering a story came in the basement of London's Heathrow Airport.

I was locked up for more than 12 hours of interrogation by the British authorities and then unceremoniously thrown out of the country after disclosing the subject of my work: decades of atrocities against children by VIPs across the British Isles that have gone ignored by lawmakers, by judges, by social workers, by the government.

The moment that nearly killed me came in the form of a simple thought: Will I have to leave these children behind, who trusted me with their stories, with no one to help them?

That was exactly two years ago this week. And it was the first time I came even close to understanding the anguish of the victims who described in heartbreaking terms what it felt like to be put between four walls without escape and treated like a piece of meat.

Many of them had come from children's homes across the British Isles, although my work focused on the island of Jersey, a cosseted tax shelter in the Channel Islands controlled by the British Crown whose government flatly -- and repeatedly -- ignored the testimony of nearly 200 children in 2008 abused at the hands of government officials, prominent businessmen, celebrities, police officers and (allegedly) one prime minister.

The moment I was locked up, it was instantly clear to me how the impact of events that take place when you are locked up is amplified, because, well, you are locked up. And in that moment, I saw how real human trauma begins not with something as bluntly obvious as threats or violence, but with forced isolation, disenfranchisement, demoralization and with the taking away of your basic human rights -- your very human-ness.

In my case, locking me up was the British authorities' way of saying, you are asking too many questions; look what we can do to you. In the case of the victims I had been interviewing, it had been their captors' way of saying, we own you; no one is coming for you; we will do what we like with you.

It should be noted that, in my case, I was verbally, not physically, assaulted. There were plenty of threats and rummaging around through my belongings, yes, but I was released after 12-ish hours. For the victims of abuse across the British Isles, this was most certainly not the case. Some were locked up from infancy to adulthood. And what happened to them is not to be described in print. Many of those I have interviewed would have preferred to die rather than what they went through. These offenses were akin to war crimes, without a war.

Where lawmakers, judges, social workers and the government fail to help those who are helpless, journalism offers a way to shine some sunlight where it is most needed. But when those seeking to uncover truth are locked up -- like I was in September 2011, or like David Miranda was this past August -- the chilling effects can be jarring.

In the aftermath, I could not understand why so many UK journalists just folded their tents and walked away.
My answer came when I was banned from the UK for not also taking the hint. -- Leah McGrath Goodman

Chilling effects fascinate me. It was the chilling effect on the island of Jersey that caused me to start investigating it in 2008 when almost 200 victims came forward with horrific stories of systemic rape and torture -- before being abruptly silenced by their own government. In the aftermath, I could not understand why so many U.K. journalists just folded their tents and walked away.

My answer came when I was banned from the UK for not also taking the hint.

The undercover journalist from Ghana, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, is widely recognized for the impact of his stories, which have, as he says, allowed him to "name, shame and jail" corrupt officials in Africa. But what makes this journalist truly admirable is that he is willing to sacrifice his very identity and risk his own life to do this important and dangerous work.

Anas's question: what is the role of journalism, if not to benefit society?

The flip side to that question: how much should a journalist have to sacrifice to benefit society?

Miranda's partner, Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian, did not hide his anger over his own ongoing work causing him, Miranda and his newspaper to be targeted by the British authorities.

Yet here is another trap for journalists: if you are too angry, you are no longer objective. And if you are no longer objective, you are no longer fit to cover your own story.

And then, of course, there is the meddlesome issue of journalists going after each other.

In order to fulfill the public mission of journalism -- which is, after all, supposed to be the point of it all -- it is crucial that journalists be allowed to do their work without institutional interference.

These days, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Information is the planet's new power currency - and journalists are its gatekeepers. With the public increasingly turning to online news sources for their information, state oppression of journalists and bloggers is on the rise.

Do journalists really have to become quasi-superheroes in order to find, safeguard and publish key data?

Should journalists have to sacrifice their rights to liberty and freedom of movement; to safety and privacy; to even their own identities and lives?

The answer ultimately lies in the will of the public -- our readers -- those people journalists aim to humbly serve.

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