Category: State of Journalism

War Journalists: Casualties of Their Trade

Its hard to understand why something has the ability to punch you in the figurative gut. Something so far removed from you that it should barely register a reaction. Yet, it steals your breath anyway. That happened to me this week – with a tweet. The offending tweet (from a breaking news thread) said, “Reports: renowned war photojournalists Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington killed in Libya. Details sketchy; awaiting more.”

I don’t know why this news struck me so very hard. These are not the first journalists to be killed in a war zone – but Tim Hetherington is the first journalist whose work I have studied to be killed so shockingly, and yet so predictably. It registered. It hurt. Not for me personally, it hurt for everyone who knew him. It hurt for the people whose lives he brought to light. It hurt for the stories he won’t get to tell. It hurt because people you admire shouldn’t die. Not like that. At least not in a perfect world. But then again, in a perfect world there wouldn’t be a profession called “War Photojournalist.”

Hetherington is best know for the documentary film Restrepo, which he directed with Sebastian Junger. It was nominated for an Oscar this past winter. I’ve read Junger’s book on the same events as the film – called War, and seen parts, though admittedly not all of Restrepo. It is about the time Junger and Hetherington spent embedded with a group of American soldiers in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. My post, Sebastian Junger’s War Zone ruminates on the book and on the topic of war. But looking back on it, I can’t help but feel deeply how little I know about war.

There has been a lot of coverage of Hetherington and Hondros’ deaths, but the People Magazine of it all isn’t the story I hope most people will read to find out about these men, and the circumstances under which they died. Sebastian Junger has a tribute in Vanity Fair written as a personal letter to Hetherington that drips with grief and beauty. Susan Orlean has a post in The New Yorker about Hetherington and what it is to be brave. New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers has a post on his personal website, Almost Dawn in Libya: Chris and Tim heading home, that pauses amidst the chaos of tragedy to thank the people and groups that tried so hard to save, and then do right by the fallen photojournalists. These are the stories that I hope people will read. It is a tall order to memorialize the fallen, but these writers give it a damn good try.

Tales From My Twitter

I did it. Took the plunge. Succumbed to the peer pressure. I joined twitter. I think I was inspired by the BronxZoosCobra. One of two things will now happen: I will come to regret it, or I will become addicted. Maybe I’ll get more twitter followers than blog followers (not that I don’t love the seven of you immensely.) Here goes my shameless plug:

Fun fact, within 20 minutes of joining twitter, my first follower became Sea World. Nothing against Sea World, I’m just not sure what their interest says about me. Do they follow every person who claims to be a science writer? Or did I just do something special to garner their attention? Fellow science writers, please advise.

Update 4/8/11 – Six days on twitter, and I’ve lost Sea World as a follower. Sad day. I guess my tweets weren’t of interest to them after all. But I do have 10 whole followers, putting my twitter prowess ahead of my blogging prowess by three.

Update 4/18/11 – Complete and total obsession has taken hold. Twitter has bested Facebook in the struggle for my two-second attention span, and I am overwhelmed by the wealth of information I didn’t realize was being traded everyday. I have made it to 22 followers, only five of whom I actually happen to know. I have been Re-Tweeted by the Canadian Research Office – much to my amazement. I am both humbled and nervous about what my tweets will say about me. In my worst nightmare my budding career is brought down by using the wrong #hashtag and offending someone I never even knew existed. Perhaps I am taking my life on the internet far too seriously. It may be time to back slowly away from the laptop.

Finding A Place For Al Jazeera

Chaos has erupted in Egypt this week as protests calling for the removal of the president Hosni Mubarak turned violent. I do not mean to say that the conflict is as simple as pro or anti government groups, I know it is a complex issue. But as a disclaimer, I’m not a political writer, or an international relations writer.

The reason I bring up the conflict in Egypt is because I read a very interesting opinion piece on Al Jazeera English: US viewers seek Al Jazeera Coverage which says that the conflict in Egypt has led to a considerable increase in the number of people from the United States choosing to get their news from Al Jazeera. I think Al Jazeera is a very interesting curveball for the broadcast news industry that we should be watching.  
The article and comments section make the case that other news outlets (MSNBC, CNN, ABC, CBS) have done a poor job of covering Egypt, while Al Jazeera has excelled. The claim that American coverage is lacking is convincing. More people seem to know that Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour, and Katie Couric were attacked by the protesters than they know about the causes of the conflict (myself included). 
For those who are unfamiliar, Al Jazeera is the dominant news outlet (television and internet) in the middle east, and is popular all over the world. Except here. Cable providers in the United States have largely chosen not to pick up Al Jazeera. Some say this is because the audience isn’t interested in Al Jazeera and the cable companies would lose money. Some say that Al Jazeera has been blacklisted for being sympathetic to terrorists. 
But for those who want it, Al Jazeera can be streamed live online which gives many Americans access even if it is not a choice on the television. Al Jazeera has dominated coverage of the situation in Egypt for several reasons, namely because they were already there and they know how to operate in the country. 
I visited the headquarters of Al Jazeera English in Washington D.C. with a college group in 2009. They actually let us in the control room during a live broadcast, and gave us what I consider to be a lot of access to their newsroom. The opinion piece I mentioned above is definitely something to think critically about, and consider the points for and against broadcasting Al Jazeera in the United States. 
The comments section on the article brings up some really great points about how Al Jazeera is seizing the opportunity to play up the “discrimination” against them by American viewers and also how Al Jazeera is a legitimate news source that Americans deserve access to. Internet is good but Americans get their news from the TV, and until Al Jazeera is given a channel the network just isn’t going to take hold in the United States.
Check out Al Jazeera’s coverage and let me know what you think. I’ll be watching to see if the situation in Egypt gives Al Jazeera the momentum it needs for a cable provider in the US to pick up the network. 

Can Journalists Be Celebrities?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the distinction between television news personalities, and print/internet journalists. I feel pretty strongly that being a TV news anchor, doesn’t necessarily make you a journalist. But then what does make someone a journalist?

With the “sudden” departure of liberal commentator Keith Olbermann from MSNBC’s program Countdown last week, I think the issue of journalists as television personalities, and ultimately as celebrities has been brought into the spotlight. Olbermann has been in trouble with the network for donating to liberal political campaigns, which would be a big no-no for a journalist because it would be a clear violation of the need to be unbiased. But Olbermann has never been unbiased. He has always made his affiliations clear, so does the fundamental journalistic quality of trying to be fair go out the window? If we don’t hold him to journalistic standards, does he then become nothing more than just a television star?
Where do we draw the line between Matt Lauer and Anderson Cooper? Are they both journalists? Are neither of them journalists? How does being on television make someone different from a print journalist? How many print journalists do you know by name? If I had to guess, I’d say not that many. I ask these questions because I think there are important distinctions between journalists that people need to be aware of. But at the same time, I’m not sure that I can quantify what it is that makes or discounts someone from being a journalist. 
When I think about television journalism, I automatically think that Anderson Cooper is more legitimate than your typical nightly news anchor. But is this just a reflection of the way he is displayed on TV? Is he really a journalist in the sense that he develops stories, cultivates sources, does the digging and background research necessary to make a story? Or does he send an intern off to do the real journalism and then just read the cue cards? I certainly don’t know how Cooper operates, but I think its important to consider why he seems so much more like a journalist than the people who read the news every night on television. 
Print journalists are rarely as recognizable as television personalities. Does that make print journalism more legitimate? For whatever reason, I feel a bias against people on television. If someone wants to be a television star, I don’t consider that the same as wanting to be a journalist. But why can’t a journalist also be a television star? What is it about TV that somehow cheapens what may very well be outstanding journalism?
Perhaps it is nothing more than the difference between an editorial and an article. But then why do the people who read the news on television (which would count as articles) not seem like journalists, when someone like Cooper who can easily cross into the realm of editorial seems legitimate? Especially when the Olbermann’s of the world, who are clearly editorialists, have so obviously crossed the line between journalist and television talking head. 
I’m not sure. But as I figure out what kind of journalist I want to be, and how I want to direct my career, it is definitely something that I’m thinking about. 
Some background on the Olbermann/MSNBC split: