BY Hannah Storm

Why journalism matters: tribute to James Foley

It was late yesterday evening in the UK when the news started circulating of a video purporting to show the beheading of the American freelance journalist James Foley. 

Within minutes, my Twitter and Facebook pages were full of comments expressing disbelief at the unconfirmed reports.

Shortly afterwards, a number of individuals shared the horrific video and several still images from it on these channels. There was no warning about the truly graphic nature of the contents. I did not watch the whole video, but I did see some of the images. My first reaction was incredulity, then anger, and then disgust. After a few minutes, I took to Twitter to express my emotions, writing: “What possesses people to think it is acceptable to share videos apparently showing someone being murdered? I am angry. Make that furious.”

Since the start of the Arab uprisings, there have been numerous examples of individuals calling themselves journalists who have tweeted or made comments on social media about the apparent deaths of others in our industry – before these were verified and certainly before their family and loved ones knew. It’s as though the traditional ethical norms of journalism have no place in this new world of media, as though in the rush to make waves in the torrent of Twitter, people fail to pause before they press send. 

“Twitter is not an excuse to undergo a moral lobotomy. Think: wd you like to read abt the unconfirmed death of a loved one via social media?,” I wrote as I tried to muddle my way through the noise and the news last night.

At INSI, we are appalled by the news of James Foley’s brutal murder and our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues. 

I work in an industry where death is sadly all too common, where the respect afforded to journalists seems to have dwindled in recent years and where increasingly our colleagues are becoming targeted for the stories they tell. Since the start of this year, almost 80 journalists and media workers have been killed doing their jobs – that’s more than two a week.

Many have been targeted because somebody somewhere didn’t like what they were doing. Somebody somewhere wanted to silence messengers like James Foley.

He had covered conflicts for several years and for prestigious media outlets. Even those in the journalism community like me – who had never had the privilege of working with him – felt we knew him. From the way he spoke about the dangers of our profession in the days after his release in Libya in 2011, to the images of him in his flak jacket and helmet with his camera, distributed by his family and friends after his kidnapping in Syria in 2012, he was a talented, professional journalist who was respected and admired.  And it was to those images that many turned last night, asking for him to be remembered in that way, not in the way that those who shared the video might have hoped.

He is not the first freelance journalist to be killed this year, and he will probably not be the last.

Since the start of the Arab uprisings, there has been a steady increase in the numbers of freelancers being kidnapped, injured and killed. This is in part down to the fact that there seems to be more freelancers in journalism than in the past, and that more of them are covering conflict.

With a dearth of jobs in newsrooms and overseas bureaux being cut by major news organisations, many freelancers have turned to conflicts to cut their teeth. In some instances, they are filling the roles that staff journalists previously had, but often with less of the structure and support of their employed colleagues.

Geographically, the conflicts of the Arab uprisings have been easy to get to and relatively cheap to cover. The cost of small, easily portable technology means that can anyone can become a multi-media journalist. In addition, the inexorable rise of social media and the explosion of non-traditional news sources have increased the platforms that can be served with news.

Still, the risks freelancers face are often greater than those experienced by their employed counterparts. And there are still many working in conflict zones and facing danger daily who not have the right protective equipment, training and insurance. Most, however, are extremely responsible and simply struggling against inordinate odds and costs to do the job they love.

Most major news organisations take seriously their duty of care to their journalists – whether they are hired on a freelance or more permanent basis and that ranges from ensuring they have the appropriate training, kit and equipment to insuring them. So challenging and dangerous has it become to report in Syria, that even the most established organisations have had to comprehensively review their safety procedures. In February 2013, the Sunday Times told freelancers not to submit photos from Syria, because it did not want to encourage them to take “exceptional risks”. Other media organisations followed a similar policy of not accepting unsolicited material from journalists, because the dangers they faced there were deemed too great.  

It is vital that journalists should be able to access affordable equipment, insurance and safety training, but it also vitally important that they understand that theirs can be a dangerous choice of career.

James Foley knew the dangers of reporting. In words, made even more poignant since yesterday’s news, he told students at his former journalism school, Medill in Illinois: "It's not worth your life. It's not worth seeing your mother, father, brother and sister bawling. It's not worth these things.

"No matter what romantic ideal you have, no matter what ethic you think you have.”

Many of us subscribe to similar romantic ideals. We want to shine a light in the darkest corners of humanity, expose wrongdoing, and bring to task those who try to crush, kill and corrupt. Journalism and the desire to practice it runs through us like blood. James Foley will be remembered as a journalist’s journalist.

And at a time when the profession has been much maligned, he stands as a beacon to those who question why we do it.

Hannah Storm is the director of the International News Safety Institute.