Foley (Steven Senne / AP)
The tragic murder of American journalist James Foley this week by ISIS militants may result in the misconception that freelancers like him go in harm's way because they're adrenaline junkies. The vast majority of these correspondents and photographers work in dangerous conditions to bear witness to traumatic events so audiences can learn what is happening in conflict zones worldwide. They are not thrill-seekers. These rare individuals believe that as journalists they have a responsibility to regularly put themselves at risk so others will be informed, enlightened or compelled to action.
“Most good journalists are idealistic,” says Terry Anderson, former Chief Middle East Correspondent for The Associated Press (AP) and a hostage in Lebanon from 1985 to 1991. “Their primary motivation is not curiosity or adventure. It’s really a need to take the world by the lapel and shake them and say: ‘You need to pay attention. This is important. I need to tell you this. You need to know this.’ ”
Christiane Amanpour, in the book “Journalists at Risk: Reporting America’s Wars,” echoed Anderson’s comments, noting that correspondents “… have a duty, a mission for this kind of work.”
Since 2005, when I began my research into the world of trauma journalism, I have interviewed many journalists in the U.S. and abroad about their motivations for covering violence, crises, and tragedies.
Some are notable, such as Terry Anderson, Vietnam veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo, or current BBC correspondent David Loyn. However, the majority, like the late James Foley, work without fame or name recognition.
My 2011 book, “Trauma Journalism: On Deadline in Harm’s Way,” explored not only what drives these individuals to put themselves at risk physically and psychologically but, more importantly, the toll of hazardous coverage on news media workers.
The role of journalists in covering trauma and tragedy isn’t new. Witnessing acts of war, destruction, and terror has long been the professional responsibility of countless print and broadcast reporters and photographers. What is new is a growing awareness of the emotional consequences of such coverage on the victims, their families and loved ones, their communities, and on the journalists whose job it is to tell these stories.
International trauma psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein and I served on a National Press Club panel on PTSD in November 2012, discussing the impact of war coverage on correspondents. Feinstein has compiled extensive research on the subject, exploring long-term effects and coping strategies of news gatherers. While recognizing the courage and endurance of such journalists, Feinstein notes: “Resilience in the face of adversity is not, however, synonymous with immunity.”
By all accounts, Foley was remarkably resilient in his years covering global conflict.
But, like so many other journalists before him, he paid the ultimate price for his news coverage. Tragically, he came to the same terrible fate as Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was also kidnapped and murdered by fanatics a dozen years earlier in Pakistan.
Mark Massé is a literary journalism professor at Ball State University. He is author of “Trauma Journalism: On Deadline in Harm’s Way.”