Reporting conflict: competition, pressure and risks

October 19, 2011


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By Helena Williams

In a year where 100 journalists have been killed so far while trying to tell the story, and as the media’s coverage of events rocking the Middle East have been brought into sharp relief, it seems high time to examine the delicate relationship between ensuring the safety of journalists and being able to break the story first.

“Libya has been a very traumatic year for journalists, especially for freelance journalists. We lost three good friends,” said Inigo Gilmore, an award-winning freelance journalist who has worked in conflict zones across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

“No one even imagined Libya would turn to this. How could we [journalists] predict what would happen on the frontline?”

Last night’s talk at The Frontline Club, ‘Reporting Conflict: Competition, pressure and risks’ highlighted the risks that journalists out in the field and news editors back in London face while attempting to break news to an increasingly demanding audience.

Chaired by former BBC executive Vin Ray, and with international editor for ITV news Bill Neely, head of international news at Sky News Sarah Whitehead, and BBC’s world news editor Jon Williams sitting on the panel alongside Gilmore, the debate focused on the difficulties of conflict reporting from opposing sides of the industry – both those commissioning journalists to go to the frontline, and the journalists themselves.

Neely, who has worked in numerous conflict zones, was adamant that the first and constant pressure of covering war did not come from newsrooms in London, but rather from the competitive nature of journalists who want to go and get the story.

The old pressures from the newsroom no longer exist, said Neely, who argued that journalists now travel to hotspots on a voluntary basis.

Journalists have to be savvy while out in the field – the rule is “don’t stay anywhere for longer than 20 minutes in a warzone,” he said –  but it is also up to the editors to monitor the situation.

“Over the past 10 years editors in London understand that it’s people on the ground who have to make the decision not to go those 100 metres up the road.”

Whitehead, whose Sky News teams were hailed for their remarkable coverage from Tripoli’s Green Square during the fighting in Libya in August this year, agreed:

“You’re not there and you have to make sure they [the journalists] can make the decision. This year has been one of the most extreme and dangerous that I’ve known.

“This year I have taken people off air who have been in the middle [of reporting]. One afternoon, when a team was watching a fire fight in Tripoli, snipers opened up behind them and I pulled them off air and asked what their exit route was.

“You have to be there to be the stops if they are taken over by the story.”

While the BBC and other news organisations were criticised for failing to get equally dramatic coverage of events unfolding in Libya, Whitehead insisted that a lot of her team’s reporting was down to luck.

“[Sky News] was at the right place at the right time, and in the right frame of mind. They didn’t know where they were going to end up. A lot of people made other decisions and it was the right decisions for them.”

Williams, who has also had his fair share of managing journalists in hostile environments, said: “Risk must outweigh return, but it is a very fine balance. It’s a difficult call to go forward, and it’s just as difficult to go back. If you have the balls to go back because you don’t think it’s safe I take my hat off to you.”

Neely added: “It’s risk and reward. You have to ask yourself, ‘is it really worth that extra shot?'”

“War reporting is a mixture of judgement and luck – but you can be unlucky. For those 100 journalists this year, for one reason or another, their luck ran out.”