Alan Fisher - Journalist

Personal website of Al Jazeera English journalist, Alan Fisher

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Covering conflict

Posted on March 4, 2012 at 9:10 PM

Just over a year ago I presented my thesis towards earning an MA. My topic was one in which I was deeply interested. Not least because it touches on who I am. My topic was the work of "war correspondents", a job title I dislike but it is easy shorthand for describing one branch of journalism.

There is something special about the people who choose to work in difficult and dangerous places. They are regarded as the cream of the profession; the best, the most experienced. Andrew Marr, when he worked as a newspaper editor described them as the "unacknowledged aristocracy of journalism”.

One of the people I interviewed suggested every war correspondent has a fixed number of assignments in them. The lucky ones recognise it and move on. Those unlucky ones don't and get killed.

I've known a number of terrific journalists, people I would call friends, who have been killed doing their job. I admired and respected Terry Lloyd of ITN who was killed in the early days of the last Iraq war. I wanted to write like Kurt Schork of Reuters who was passionate and disciplined during the wars in the Balkans and was killed in an ambush in Sierra Leone. And I still think about Taras Protsyuk, a Reuters cameraman killed when an American tank fired at the Baghdad hotel where the journalists were staying.

Every time a journalist is killed in similar circumstances, I’m saddened. Wars need to be covered. And journalists are the bridge between conflict and normality, essential to the understanding of war and its impact.

But I also feel disconcerted in the way our profession lauds its dead. There is mawkishness to the coverage. We talk about the cost of bringing truth to the world, of highlighting the realities, of giving a voice to the voiceless.

It is a noble goal, yet many of those on the battlefield are there because of the glamour and excitement, because of the drama and the danger. They chose to be there, unlike those they are covering.

One of my interviewees summed it up when he told me ‘Covering wars and doing it well is the fastest way to build a reputation, to win awards and if you win awards, the bosses might treat you better. It can be a selfish thing’.

I have felt it myself; determined to do well, to put the story before the world, but knowing that covering conflict brings credibility and respect.

For some – it is the fast track to the top. It is why so many young journalists from many organisations wanted to cover Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’. It is one of the reasons I took a job there too.

And I worry if our reverence for fallen journalistic comrades then gets in the way of telling the story, which was the original goal, and perhaps discredits their efforts.

Only this weekend, the leader of the rebels in the Syrian city of Homs lamented that the western media paid more attention to the recent death of two journalists than the ‘tens of thousands of Syrians’. Paul Conroy is a British photographer who was injured when his colleagues died. He was eventually rescued and smuggled out of Syria. It should be remembered 13 local volunteers were apparently killed while trying to get him out.

Picking up one newspaper in the US this weekend, there is more written about the untimely death of a brilliant and talented New York Times reporter that there is about all the events in Syria.

Some war correspondents display levels of egomaniacal self absorption. They are there for the glory and fame. Yet for others there is a brilliance and dedication. They return to conflict zones because there is a thrill in the danger, a satisfaction in winning the respect of your colleagues. But there is also a commitment to tell a story. And the world needs people like that.

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