Death toll demands we ask searching questions

Two weeks ago, the BBC’s Vin Ray wrote in this magazine about the phone call that all news executives dread having to take. The phone call informing them that one of their journalists is missing. Or worse.

Too many of his colleagues around the world have had to take such calls since then.

Ray was writing in the aftermath of Terry Lloyd’s death, at a time when we hoped that the tragedy would be an isolated incident just three days into the war.

As almost each day has passed since then, those hopes have been dashed with shocking regularity.

By the end of the first week, the death toll of journalists already looked terrible. Now it looks nothing short of appalling. As this column goes to press, 11 journalists and one translator have been confirmed killed. Two have been missing since the incident that claimed Lloyd’s life. Serious injuries are being reported too often, some of them live to camera by journalists who have been hurt themselves in the same incidents.

Executives from ITN, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, Atlantic Monthly, NBC, Al-Jazeera, Spain’s Telecinco and El Mundo, Germany’s Focus magazine and now Reuters know the gut-wrenching reality of that phone call.

Twenty days have claimed the lives of Terry Lloyd, Gaby Rado, Paul Moran, Kaveh Golestan, Michael Kelly, David Bloom, Julio Anguita Parrado, Christian Liebig, Kamaran Abdurazaq Muhamed, Tarek Ayoub, Taras Protsyuk and Jose Couso.

This is a truly terrible toll.

Even more so when you consider the following statistic. In the first Gulf War, not one journalist was killed during the span of the fighting.

Since then we might have thought we had learned more, not less, about the safety of journalists covering conflict. Certainly more money has been spent on training, greater awareness has been raised of the dangers, better equipment has been issued for those going out into the field to bring back the reality of war.

Yet that ever-lengthening list of dead makes a mockery of all of that.

And after the horror of those phone calls has sunk in, executives from news organisations everywhere – and not just those that have suffered losses – must ask themselves and each other searching questions. Sooner, rather than later.

In looking for the truth, did we let them get too close?

In wanting excellence from them, did we ask too much?

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