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Sun., Aug. 17, 2014

Gary Graham: Journalists’ jobs often mean risk

This past week has not been an easy one for journalists.

Consider:

A video journalist working for the Associated Press and his freelance interpreter were killed in an explosion at an ordnance dump in the Gaza Strip.

Alissa Rubin, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and a former colleague of mine, received a concussion and two broken wrists in a helicopter crash in northern Iraq. The pilot was killed.

Two journalists covering protests in suburban St. Louis were roughed up and taken into police custody. Both were reporting on chaos in the streets that was prompted by a police officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed man.

Carlos Cervantes, an investigative reporter in Colombia who has long focused on local corruption, was shot to death only weeks after the government had removed his protective detail.

I am well aware that public opinion surveys consistently show journalists are rated more unfavorably than many, many other professions. Readers, pundits, the political cognoscenti and others engaged in the public discourse that takes place across the country regularly accuse journalists of being unfair, shallow, biased and worse. Let’s face it, when is the last time you saw a reporter portrayed in a positive light, especially in a movie or television drama? News organizations make the image factor worse by feeding the obsessions of people who can’t get enough about the Kardashians, Brad & Angelina, or Justin Bieber.

But please, can we put all the negatives aside for a bit and consider the hard work that journalists do every day in contributing to democracy and an informed citizenry? The journalists who lost their lives, suffered critical injuries or were rousted by bullying police officers wearing war gear were working for all of us. The public has a right to know what is happening in war zones, international hot spots and the streets of our cities.

Working as a journalist in today’s world truly is a privilege. There’s no greater achievement for a reporter, photographer or editor than when they are providing new and important information to readers, viewers and listeners.

Even as economic factors and technology spur a constant barrage of upheaval and cost reductions at every turn, the journalists I work with in our newsroom and those I know in many corners of the country still see our profession as a calling, one that lets us serve our readers while using everyone’s First Amendment rights in constructive ways for society.

Our reporters and competitors rarely encounter truly dangerous situations, although covering the region’s largest forest fires calls for extra vigilance by any reporter, photographer or television cameraman. However, in the last decade The Spokesman-Review has sent a reporter and photographer to Iraq, and a former photographer of ours has been freelancing in the Middle East’s hot spots for several years.

Earlier this year, several local reporters were only yards away from the scene when Spokane police shot and killed a homicide suspect on a neighborhood street. Fortunately, reporters were not in the line of fire, but being on the scene when shots ring out is nothing to take lightly.

After 42 years in the newspaper business, I remain proud to be a journalist and thankful for the many opportunities I’ve been given. However, events of the past week are a stark reminder of the risks that many in our profession take more often than the public realizes.

Dean Baquet, editor of the New York Times, sent a note to his staff this week to update colleagues on Rubin’s recovery and paid tribute to the work of journalists around the globe:

“This is a good time to reflect on our colleagues who are covering the world at a particularly violent, tumultuous time. I don’t recall a period when so many writers, photographers and videographers have been in harm’s way for The Times and other news organizations, taking risks and living away from their families to tell important stories.”

The world has witnessed a dramatic rise in tensions and chaos in recent months. Much of what we have learned about conflict, disease and disaster comes to us through the efforts of journalists. Let’s hope they continue to do their important work and remain safe.

Gary Graham is editor of The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5405, garyg@spokesman.com, or @glgraham via Twitter.


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