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Week of 14 February 2003· Vol. VI, No. 21

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COM journalism profs stress safety in the field post-9/11

By David J. Craig

When Daniel Pearl arranged to meet an Islamic extremist by himself in an unfamiliar location in Karachi, Pakistan, last January, his colleagues urged him not to go, or not to go alone. But the Wall Street Journal reporter was after a scoop: he thought the interview would shed light on suspected ties between al-Qaeda operatives and shoebomber Richard Reid. When he arrived at the empty restaurant after dusk, the thugs who eventually would butcher him muscled him into a waiting car.

Michael Berlin, a COM associate professor of journalism (left), and Robert Zelnick, a professor and chairman of COM’s journalism department, teach students to avoid the mistakes made by many reporters who recently have been killed or abducted while on foreign assignment. Photo by Fred Sway


Michael Berlin, a COM associate professor of journalism (left), and Robert Zelnick, a professor and chairman of COM’s journalism department, teach students to avoid the mistakes made by many reporters who recently have been killed or abducted while on foreign assignment. Photo by Fred Sway


Pearl was an experienced and highly respected reporter, but he didn’t act like one on that story, many journalists quietly observed when details of his abduction became known. “It seems that Pearl was very lax about telling people where he was going and that he would go places without backup support,” says Michael Berlin, a COM associate professor of journalism. “That’s exactly what you teach young journalists not to do.”

Berlin, a former reporter and editor at the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Post, among other major newspapers, knows a thing or two about handling risky assignments, having reported from hotspots such as Israel’s West Bank and broken stories on New York City gangsters. And he’s one of several COM journalism professors who now more than ever, in light of recent increased violence against reporters around the world, discuss with students how to protect themselves in the field.

“In my foreign reporting class, I talk a lot about how to keep yourself out of trouble,” says Berlin. “I tell students that when you go into places or situations you aren’t familiar with, you should hire a local person you can trust to take you, someone who is going to be welcomed. Also, travel in numbers as often as you can, don’t try to be a lone wolf, and maintain constant communication with your colleagues so they always know where you are and when you are expected at certain places. And if you’re given a flack jacket, wear it, because there’s no sense in not wearing it to show everybody how brave you are.”

Sitting ducks
Issues of reporter safety have taken on new urgency in the past few months, Berlin says, because of Pearl’s murder, the subsequent al-Qaeda announcement that Western journalists would be routine targets of violence as part of its jihad, and the deaths of eight journalists during fighting in Afghanistan. There has also been a rash of recent journalist kidnappings, including that of two American reporters in Columbia earlier this year. “The rules are changing,” he says, “because now journalists are being targeted.”

Many observers agree that violence against journalists worldwide has risen over the past decade. For instance, while the Associated Press has lost 26 journalists in covering conflicts in its 126 years, 9 of them were killed in the last 9 years -- more than during either of the World Wars, Korea, or Vietnam. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 100 reporters in 38 nations lost their lives while doing their jobs in 2001, the highest total in six years.

Robert Zelnick, a professor and chairman of COM’s journalism department, says that one of the most common mistakes young reporters working overseas make is assuming that they are respected as nonpolitical, objective observers, just as they are in the West. As well as foreign reporting, he teaches a course on covering international terrorism, which he created last semester.

“When I covered Moscow in the early ’80s, I found that Soviet functionaries treated me as if I were part of the U.S. government,” says Zelnick, a former news director, producer, and foreign correspondent for ABC News, who over three decades reported from Vietnam, Israel, Lebanon, Mogadishu, and Moscow. “The fact that I worked for a free and independent press meant nothing to them. I think the same thing is true in the Middle East and in a lot of regions. People there generally don’t make a distinction between a member of an enemy government or military and someone from that country who writes for a newspaper. And with terrorists, that’s becoming more the case.”

In response to the increased danger foreign correspondents find themselves facing, many of the top U.S. and British news agencies have begun sending their newspeople to safety courses run by military specialists. At a cost of about $500 a day, the journalists learn survival skills of the sort taught in army basic training. But many reporter casualties, says Zelnick, could be avoided if reporters used common sense and watched their own backs. He points out that many journalists killed recently in Afghanistan traveled in unarmed convoys -- a definite no-no within battle zones.

“I teach my students to always be aware of the political lay of the land, and not to take daredevil risks,” he says. “But taking calculated risks is part of a reporter’s job, and knowing the precise moment to back off from a particular situation can be very difficult.”

Asked if he ever put himself in a situation he later regretted, Zelnick recounts an incident in 1993 when he led a camera crew on foot into a lawless region of Somalia to gather material for a television piece on Islamic fundamentalism. “The place was like the Wild West, and there was a group of people who took exception to us shooting footage of a mosque,” he says. “They began yelling obscenities and making gestures at us. Eventually the crowd grew to several hundred people, and they chased us to a pickup truck waiting to get us the hell out of there.”

Numero uno
Too, Zelnick remembers fellow reporters killed during Vietnam pursuing ill-conceived assignments from television news executives hungry for exciting battle coverage. “We lost some very good reporters, reporters who really understood the war and covered it very wisely, because they’d get a call saying that they needed to find some ‘bang-bang,’ and so they’d drive off into some area of Cambodia that they weren’t familiar with,” he says. “They were killed, needlessly.”

Berlin says that all major American television news networks and newspapers today have good reputations for protecting their news crews. And when reporters feel that their safety is compromised, he says, either on a foreign assignment or a dangerous story in the United States, they should not hesitate to request backup from their editors.

“I did an investigative project one time involving some guys running racetracks and loan-sharking in New York City, who were also heavily involved in New York state Democratic politics, and they threatened me and my family,” he says. “The first thing I did was call my editors. We decided to go forward with the story, but they made sure the threat had been noted by the Manhattan district attorney, my home phone was checked to see if it was tapped, and I was kept under surveillance to make sure I wasn’t being followed.

“If your editors goad you into being aggressive,” he continues, “they have to be willing to back you up, or they’re not doing their job.”


14 February 2003
Boston University
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