Wednesday, April 8, 2015

More than just a good story, journalists risk their lives for society

On the evening of Thursday, April 8, four journalists took the stage at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston to discuss the increasingly dangerous environments in which journalists find themselves working. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Professional journalists and the work they do are vital to creating and maintaining healthy societies - even today, when anyone with internet access and a mobile device can brand themselves a "citizen journalist" and potentially reach a world-wide audience, there is an important distinction to be made between a random person who shares information online (which has a different value in its own way) and those who dedicate their lives to seeking out truth, holding the powerful accountable and placing information in a meaningful context.  In a well-run news organization, whether it be print, digital, radio or television, reporters and editors represent the eyes and ears of the people at every level, on topics ranging from municipal politics to presidential campaigns, and in the vast preponderance of cases, they do so in a transparent, professional way.

It has often been said that news is the first draft of history, but in a day and age in which media consumers can go online and find out what's happening in virtually every corner of the globe in a matter of minutes, the media also serves as a mirror for contemporary society. I was reminded of this last night when I attended a program at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston, entitled "Journalists in Jeopardy, Risking it All to Get the Story." The panel featured Aaron Schachter  of Public Radio International as moderator, Israeli journalist Amir Tibon (Walla News correspondent), Tracey Shelton (senior foreign correspondent for Boston-based international news group GlobalPost and reporter for The GroundTruth Project) and Joe Bergentino ( executive director/co-founder of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and former investigative reporter with WBZ-TV).

The program opened with Charles Sennott, co-founder of GlobalPost and founder/executive director at The GroundTruth Project at WGBH, addressing the audience via Skype from Afghanistan, where he was working on a special report on the country more than a decade after he was there to cover the early days of the war following the September 11 attacks. The discussion then moved on to the increased level of threats that journalists around the world face today, not only when covering foreign wars but working within the United States as well.

Aaron Schachter, who donned a flak jacket with the word "Press" emblazoned across the front as he opened the program, noted that when he first began reporting from places like Gaza roughly 13 years ago, that journalists were clearly seen as non-combatants and able to work in relative safety. From the comments of all of the journalists on the stage, though, it was clear that times have changed, as they touched on the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of ISIS.

It was a stark reminder that in 2015 there are organizations and individuals who are so outside the bounds of what we might call "normal" civil society that no one is safe from their brutality. It is bad enough when ISIS cruelly murders and maims innocent civilians and commits countless otherunspeakable crimes, but their killing of journalists is also a kind of statement about their rejection of international and social norms. In a previous post I made a similar argument about the Charlies Hebdo attack, noting that while I'm no fan of that publication's content, the slaying of those associated with the magazine was a double crime, first and foremost it was a horrific act of violence against those killed and injured, and second, it was an assault on free speech and the organizations which promote it.

Against this backdrop the work that these four and many others are doing is perhaps even more admirable. Whether in the case of Joe Bergentino traveling to Putin's Russia to teach fellow journalists the art of investigative reporting, or Amir risking his life as an Israeli journalist reporting from Syria, or Tracey Shelton traversing war-torn Libya as a freelancer, these men and women are not only recording the first draft of history, but showing us the ways in which corruption, terrorism and social chaos are threatening civil societies around the world today.

The existence of a free and open media is something we take for granted all too often in the United States and in other liberal societies where we assume that reporters will not only have access to high officials and critical information, but will be allowed to do so unimpeded and without fear of death or injury. In many places around the world this is not the case, and even in the United States journalists have been targeted for violence by people with twisted political or ideological agendas.

The four journalists who spoke at the JCC this week deserve our thanks and respect for the work they are doing and the risks they are taking to shine a light in the darkest corners of the globe. In turn, it is our responsibility as citizens not to shy away from the facts they report, no matter how ugly or disturbing. Perhaps if both sides, journalists and everyday citizens alike, can hold up both ends of this bargain we can work together to lessen corruption, stop the killing and restore some semblance of social stability in places like Russia, Libya and Syria, as well as remind people living in the West that a free and open media is one of the core elements of healthy, functional democracies.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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