Syria: Why we can't afford the death of journalists

For those of us in this profession, there is no worse news than that of the death of a reporter on the front line of news.

The deaths of American Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik of France in Syria on Wednesday are just the latest, and will not be the last.

Plenty of foreign and war reporters are better placed to explain why they do what they do. I've often dreamt of being a foreign reporter, but I don't have the "bravery or bravado" perhaps to be in a war zone.

This is a cynical age.

We elevate the death of reporters - as named faces we recognise - above the hundreds or thousands of others who die in war zones.

French photographer Remi Ochlik is seen in this picture taken in Cairo, Egypt, on 23 November, 2011. Reuters

In death, all are equal: everyone loses a father, mother, son, daughter, sister, brother. They are missed.

It is easy for Western media to focus on the death of one of their own, and I'm not condoning that. But what should we say to those on the ground in Syria  who lost their loved ones too?

Journalism is weird and wonderful. Our job is to highlight local or world events, focus on human suffering, and somehow force an often reluctant public to pay attention.

But we are simultaneously meaningless. We are nothing without the brave man, woman or child who has to live with daily attacks by their own government and yet is willing to speak to us.

A story has two sides: the storyteller, and the subject. Those are equal players, particularly when anyone can share their story through 140 characters. A blog at the weekend in the UK about a controversial TV programme about Gypsy weddings, got 30,000 views in 24 hours. The writer is both the subject and the storyteller.

In war zones, that's harder. There are brave citizen journalists who report what they see, and one of them, Rami al-Sayed, was also killed in a Tuesday attack in Syria.

Journalist Marie Colvin poses for a photograph with Libyan rebels (unseen) in Misrata in this 4 June, 2011 file photograph. Reuters

But Western audiences simply don't seem to connect with those on the ground - just with their own citizens who have gone to report on "others".

New media has changed the dynamic of war zones, allowing the subjects in war zones to tell their own stories, and those are important. But in countries like Syria, where it seems only international action may ever halt the bloodshed, the world needs storytellers from outside. Not because they're white or because they report in English, but because they can translate a suffering child,orphaned by the death of her parents from rocket fire, into a bigger picture.

"Here is human pain, and here is what we can report has caused it." We need reporters who can collect those stories and tell the world, so the world can act.

We pause to remember the journalists who were killed, but we should also pause to think about how we can stop more killing. Reporters never report for society to do nothing with the information.

Two years ago, Marie Colvin gave a speech on war reporting. She said: "Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers children."

Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?

"Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price."

Blogger Omar Shakir, during the visit by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to Syria, said: "I just want this Russian guy to come here inside Baba Amr and sleep one night if he can. ... We cannot sleep. ... We cannot find food. ... I just want him to come here inside Baba Amr and suffer as we suffer and see what we see."

When it comes to war zones, the world needs to listen to the voices of the subjects and the storytellers. We can't afford the deaths of either.

Updated Date: Feb 22, 2012 20:29 PM

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