Journalism Notes: Afflicting the Comfortable

Image: Journalists’ Memorial, Newseum, Washington DC


Adding to the 11 journalists who have died in the line of duty this year, NPR photojournalist David Gilkey and his interpreter, Zabihullah Tamanna, were killed June 5 when their Humvee, part of an Afghan army convoy, was hit by rocket propelled grenades during a Taliban ambush.

In the last 15 years, 838 journalists have been killed worldwide as acts of reprisal for their work, during combat crossfire, or while covering dangerous events, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since 1992, there have been 27 journalists killed just in Afghanistan, 174 in Iraq, 94 in Syria, and 58 in Pakistan. Scores more have died across the globe in places like Africa, India, Russia, and Central and South America.

As a journalism educator, I try to open my students’ eyes that this is the cost of freedom. This is the cost of the information we in a liberal democracy too often take for granted.

It’s a tough sell, to be honest. The truth is that I know many of my students will never actually work in the field of journalism. Of those who do, most of them will never come anywhere near the violence that threatens war correspondents or foreign journalists in hostile territories.

But they may one day cover crime for a local news outlet and find themselves in uncomfortable situations with unsavory characters. An editor may call upon them one day to cover a hurricane or tornado that will put their safety in jeopardy.

They may find themselves in a nightclub, or on a college campus, or in a church when a gunman opens fire.

More than anything, I guess, I want my students to understand that sharing the news with other people should be seen as both a privilege and an honorable calling, one for which many people have sacrificed greatly.

I want them to evaluate for themselves how much they would be willing to give to get a story, to count the costs. Would they follow a foster care worker into a high-crime neighborhood to tell the untold stories of child abuse and neglect? Would they expose a beloved community leader for illegal or immoral acts even if it meant their friends and families would turn against them?

I showed my students a short video from Al Jazeera recently about the dangers Somali journalists face everyday. Individuals and news organizations who challenge the rhetoric of groups like al-Shabab are quickly silenced by death or by exile. And yet, the people there hunger and thirst for the news. Even in greeting one another, they ask, “What news do you have?”

Contrast this with a society in which many of us can barely be bothered to check an app on our phone or click on a Facebook link to find out about what’s going on in the world. Juxtapose the stories and images of the more than 60 Mexican journalists who have died over the last decade with the self-absorbed musings of Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with drug cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.

I don’t mean to pontificate and get all overly righteous here; there is room for a broad range of stories and interests in the tent of journalism.

But when we gluttonize on glamour and take a pass on the more important, we should take pause and serious inventory of our values.

I think there is a similar challenge in the church.

Here in the U.S., sure we have our cultural struggles, but for the most part we enjoy immense religious freedom that our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world do not. Christians in Pakistan regularly face the threat of bombing during worship services or imprisonment for violating the blasphemy laws. Christians in China have two options for church: fall in line with the state-sanctioned, nationalized version of Christianity or go underground to house churches and risk being detained and harassed.

How many of us have in the U.S. become fat and happy at our Sunday covered dishes and our cool church cookouts? How many of us have diluted the fervor of our faith by filling it with prayers for our First World problems?

Look, I don’t have a martyr complex. Those of us lucky enough to live in relatively free societies should feel grateful, not guilty.

But I do think it is important that we make ourselves confront, and honor, regularly the sacrifices that others have made for our luxuries and liberties. And it is important to force ourselves to confront the discomfort of knowing that so many of our brothers and sisters across the world face grave threats to trusting the Lord.

If the Bible tells us to whom much is given, much is required, then what do we owe to our fellow believers who face persecution abroad?

At the very least we owe them our prayers. We owe them our respect and concern. And we owe them the dignity of listening to their stories.

For more information, check out Voice of the Martyrs. I think I’ll do that right now myself.

For Further Reading and Prayer

Committee to Protect Journalists, https://cpj.org/

IFEX, https://www.ifex.org/

International News Safety Institution, http://www.newssafety.org/home/

Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC), http://risctraining.org/

Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders), https://rsf.org/en

Voice of the Martyrs, http://www.persecution.com/

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Jeff Neely

Jeff Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Tampa, where he teaches courses in newswriting, feature writing, multimedia journalism and literary journalism. His research has examined the role narrative and literary journalism can play in broadening our understanding of various issues and experiences life brings our way, from identity formation to environmental ethics. He has also studied how youth journalism programs, where young people tell their own stories and those of their peers, can help strengthen local communities. He is currently working with local non-profit outreach organizations to build a youth journalism program called Tampa Youth Voice. Prior to entering academe, Jeff worked as a writer and editor for various publications in and around the Tampa Bay area, as well as a case manager and resource development specialist for the Florida foster care system.

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