Lindsay Palmer, Becoming the Story: War Correspondents Since 9/11 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2018).
In 2012, journalist Marie Colvin was killed while covering the then one-year-old Syrian civil war for the Sunday Times. Colvin had smuggled herself into Homs and was no stranger to personal risk, sporting an eyepatch after she lost her right eye to shrapnel during the Sri Lankan civil war in 2002. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad shrugged off the news of her death at the time: “It’s a war and she came illegally to Syria. She worked with the terrorists, and because she came illegally, she’s been responsible of everything that befall on her.” Recent reports suggest that her death was not accidental, but that Syrian government forces actively tracked her movements and ordered her killing. By now, reports of the threats to reporters, photographers, and freelancers are familiar. In 2016 alone, 127 journalists died globally in the course of doing their jobs.
Reports of the deaths of journalists, particularly Western journalists, are frequently accompanied by bromides indicating that they knew the risks of their work but disregarded them in order to bring home the stories the public needed to know. Also accompanying the news is the frequent assertion that the world has become more dangerous for journalism in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the War on Terror. Many of the memoirs published by current and former war correspondents touch on these themes, that of the intrepid war correspondent disregarding personal safety in an increasingly dangerous environment.
Lindsay Palmer, assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote Becoming the Story to interrogate the business of news gathering in contemporary conflict through a different lens than that through which we normally consume news of the deaths or injury of war correspondents, taking Colvin as one of five case studies.
Palmer’s work, while it contains case studies of journalists under fire, is not a collection of profiles documenting journalistic courage or determination. Readers seeking that sort of information might be better served by seeking out works such as Terry Gould’s Marked for Death: Dying for the Story in the World’s Most Dangerous Places (Counterpoint, 2009) or memoirs from journalists such as Michelle Shephard’s Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism’s Grey Zone (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011), Michael Petrou’s Is This Your First War? Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World (Dundurn, 2012) or Mellissa Fung’s Under an Afghan Sky (Harper Perennial, 2012).
In contrast, Palmer conveys the basic account of what occurred to each of her subjects profiled, but the real focus of her investigation is on the business of news, the narratives that form and are marketed in response to journalistic deaths, and the cultural import of these deaths within and outside the industry. It is, in part, a critique of the hypocrisy surrounding the “safety culture” that emerged in newsrooms during the war on terror – the news industry trains its workers in first aid, crisis situations, and encourages both alertness and safety practices, yet the economic model of news, with fewer resources available to overseas bureaus, combined with limited protections for Western workers let alone local journalists, help produce the very conditions that put journalists at risk. When deaths or trauma occur, Palmer notes that reporting on these cases has tended to emphasize the individual freedom and risk-taking of the war correspondent in question rather than prompting an examination of “safety culture”. Furthermore, she argues, economic and cultural forces have led the news industry, broadly defined, towards simplistic and moralistic explanations for the very conflicts that resulted in the trauma directed at journalists. While many journalists were targeted and killed during the war in the Western Balkans and elsewhere in the 1990s, the seemingly pivotal nature of the 9/11 attacks appeared to erase that history and produce a new Manichean narrative presented throughout print, broadcast, and digital media that in turn informed how the deaths of these journalists were reported on and interpreted (pp.2-10).
One of Palmer’s most convincing case studies is one of the more famous incidents of injury to an embedded war correspondent – the aftermath of a 2006 IED attack that severely injured ABC reporter Bob Woodruff and his cameraman Doug Vogt (originally from Lethbridge, Alberta). Preceding the specifics of Woodruff’s injury, Palmer capably escorts us through the debate over the practice of “embedding” reporters with units of the U.S. military during the Iraq War and how it touched on the question of “safety culture”. Palmer notes that Iraq was far from the first time that reporters accompanied military units closely – indeed Canadian war correspondents traveled in battledress with an honorary rank and with a military driver during the Second World War and Korea. Similar agreements governed media conduct in the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, as media organizations abided by military controls about what could be reported on in exchange for proximity to the action and some guarantee of safety for their reporters (p.50).
Of course, journalists were injured or killed both as embeds and while reporting independently from the military, but operating with the military offered some advantages, such as professional security during an attack and access to medical evacuation, which proved pivotal in Woodruff’s own survival and in the coverage of his injuries and recovery. Palmer, who interviewed Woodruff for her book, does not dwell on the specific circumstances of his injury, but rather focuses on the narratives that developed in coverage of his injury and recovery, how reports cast him and Vogt as representatives of war correspondents generally, how their risks were characterized as personal, and how Woodruff came to be aligned with U.S. troops that had suffered similar injuries. Woodruff’s example, Palmer suggests, “illuminated the industrial imperatives that drive the celebrification and commodification of war correspondents in the twenty-first century” (p.69). Palmer argues that these narratives tended to minimize criticism of the war, of the embedding system, and of the emerging news industry model where a visible “personality” like Woodruff is meant to do the work that foreign news bureaus once did before cutbacks and consolidation. Casting its war correspondents as heroic figures, as was the case in the coverage of Woodruff’s road to recovery, amounted to acquiescence with U.S. government policy: “U.S. networks were not asking the tough questions that their viewers needed answered; instead, they were aligning themselves and their war correspondents with the military men and women whose presence in Iraq had outlasted all of the original predictions.” (pp.75-76). Meanwhile, the news industry benefited from the ratings won by the very risks of death and trauma the industry’s “safety culture” sought to prevent. In short, contradictions abound.
In Woodruff’s case study, as in others, Palmer seems to be onto something. The consolidation and cutbacks in media as an industry may well have contributed to the risks that war correspondents took. It may also be said that the nature of some of this war reporting, with close focus on the drama at street-level following an IED attack or during an offensive, may miss something greater about the direction of the war. However, that is only if one leaves out political commentary and analysis beyond the scope of the individual case studies Palmer has offered. It can be simultaneously true that the media followed Woodruff’s injury and recovery with fascination and that the news media generally mirrored the greater public mood by 2006 that the war in Iraq was on the verge of disaster. How else to explain the fortunes of the Democratic Party in the 2006 mid-terms, and the renewed desire for inquiry and self-criticism about the Iraq missions that resulted in the much-publicized surge of 2007? Palmer’s close focus on the individual case studies reveals much, but, like her subjects, the narratives she pursues also omit important details that are arguably as influential in shaping the media landscape.
This book is not intended for a general readership but for a specialized audience. It is thoroughly researched and contains a variety of international perspectives despite its primary focus on American subjects. Specialists in public relations, communications, journalism, and media studies will find much to chew on and consider in this volume. General readers may find the technical terms and theoretical constructs, however adeptly applied in the chapters, somewhat difficult to follow. With that being said, in a world increasingly defined by low-intensity, asymmetrical wars and terrorism, interested readers will find Palmer’s study of the apparent contradictions in how these wars are covered, and what forces drive this coverage, to be of immediate concern, finding in her notes much for further discussion and debate.
Deborah Amos, “Syrian Defector: Assad Forces Targeted, Killed Journalist Marie Colvin,” National Public Radio, 10 April 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2018/04/10/601268145/syrian-government-allegedly-targeted-and-killed-journalist-marie-colvin.
Most of these were in Columbia, Iraq, Mexico, Syria, and Yemen. See Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Journalists killed in 2016, https://www.cjfe.org/journalists_killed_in_2016_an_interactive_map.
Andrew Burtch is the Canadian War Museum’s post-1945 Historian and an Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University. His book, Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence, received the 2012 C.P. Stacey Award for military history.