Do what I say, not what I did

Cliff Lonsdale hitchhiked at 16 into an African war zone to kick-start his journalistic career. Here he reviews the Amanda Lindhout debate and explains what he tells young journalists these days. Cliff Lonsdale, who hitchhiked at 16 into an African war zone to kick-start his journalistic career, reviews the Amanda Lindhout debate and explains what…

Cliff LonsdaleCliff Lonsdale hitchhiked at 16 into an African war zone to kick-start his journalistic career. Here he reviews the Amanda Lindhout debate and explains what he tells young journalists these days.

Cliff LonsdaleCliff Lonsdale, who hitchhiked at 16 into an African war zone to kick-start his journalistic career, reviews the Amanda Lindhout debate and explains what he tells young journalists these days.

At the 2009 International Press Freedom Awards, a Toronto banquet hall filled with mainstream journalists and others applauded Paul Pritchard, the young Vancouverite who filmed the death of Robert Dziekanski at the hands of the RCMP – and then went to court to stop the Mounties suppressing his footage. Pritchard, now 27, had earlier received the first CJFE Citizen Journalism Award from the organizers, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

The evening's theme: Getting Away With Murder. It referred not to the RCMP, but to the impunity with which journalists are murdered for what they write in many parts of the world today.

CJFE president Arnold Amber paid tribute to Pritchard and noted that the experience led him to decide to study to become a professional journalist. Amber also expressed great relief at the release of Amanda Lindhout from captivity in Somalia. The audience applauded that as well.

No one wants to minimize Lindhout's ordeal. But comparing and contrasting the two stories may be instructive, given the way in which commentary on Lindhout’s capture and release has descended in some quarters into personal mudslinging, replete with echos of a newsroom culture of bravado that many experienced journalists are working to eradicate.

It's time, then, for some personal disclosure, as they say on those Business News Network interviews.

It worked for me

In the early 1960s, at the age of 16, with some practical experience of reporting for my own small town newspaper but no actual training, I hitchhiked across two African countries and into what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo to cover the mopping-up stage of what proved to be the first of a long series of conflicts there. The series of articles I wrote was bought by my hometown paper, The Umtali Post (published 3 days a week) and syndicated through the Argus Africa News Service. That led to an offer of a place on a newspaper group's annual training program – the closest thing to a journalism school in that part of southern Africa at the time.

It worked for me. At nineteen, I was interviewing President Kenneth Kaunda for Zambia's national daily newspaper, The Northern News, on his return from a meeting of the Organization of African Unity. At twenty, my agency work was appearing in a variety of Fleet Street papers. At 23, I was deported from Ian Smith's Rhodesia. At 30, I was chief news editor for CBC Television. I've worked since in many parts of the world as a freelancer and an independent documentary maker, and now in my sixties, I'm teaching journalism at the graduate level at the University of Western Ontario.

But the world has changed

So what did I tell my students when Amanda Lindhout was released? I told them I was very glad she'd been set free and I was sorry for her pain and that of her family, but they should not to be so irresponsible as to think they could make their name by freelancing in Somalia. And I asked rhetorically: "Anyone care to guess how many Somalis you can kill or maim for $600,000 US?"

In a note to the students, I went on: "They say no story is worth a life. If we were just talking about the life of the reporter, our relief at Amanda Lindhout's release should be unalloyed, regardless of what we might think of her professionally. Unfortunately, her life probably wasn't the only one in the balance here."

The world has changed in many ways since I was in Amanda Lindhout's shoes. The gunmen I (mostly) managed to avoid in Congo simply wanted to shoot me and take my money and my watch. The ones she encountered understood there's much more to be gained by playing the long game, with foreign reporters as pawns.

The world has changed in other ways, too. I tell my students that I'm the last of the dinosaurs – the ones who were able to launch themselves into a journalism career equipped with little more than curiosity and a notebook. I'’s a good thing, too. Learning almost exclusively from your mistakes was never really a very good way of becoming a pillar of democracy.

Paul Pritchard and Amanda Lindhout seem to share a desire to see the right thing done, an important attribute in any journalist.  Pritchard had greatness thrust upon him. Lindhout, by failing to appreciate the degree of protection necessary, is seen as having sought it out. Pritchard's experience led him to consider what journalism can contribute to society and to decide to learn more about it through a course of study. Lindhout, no doubt still in a state of shock after her ordeal, may yet need some time to consider her next moves.

But that hasn't stopped the bun fight.

Gutsy reporter or naive thrill-seeker: the Amanda Lindhout debate

A CBC News article about Lindhout's background elicited this sharp response from a reader called Alex 3:

"At least she has the intestinal fortitude to go to a place like Somalia to bring out the news for people who lack the guts to go themselves."

Andrew Cohen, in a column for the Ottawa Citizen, asked:

 "Who is Amanda Lindhout, what was she doing in Somalia, and why do we call her a journalist?"

Part of the answer he supplied:

"She is an adventurer, a dilettante, a gutsy, friendly, chirpy, naïf. She takes risks in the world's hot spots without institutional support — all to publish pictures in Afghan magazines, appear on Iranian television, and reach a small number of readers through The Red Deer Advocate, which seemed the limit of her influence."

This infuriated the National Post's Chris Selley, who responded in a blog post:

"I never thought I'd see one journalist attack another — indeed, deny the other's very status as a journalist — for excessive initiative, independence and bravado, but there it is. I don't recall Mr. Cohen criticizing Scott Taylor when he was kidnapped on an independent, unembedded tour of Iraq in 2004, and I don't recall him criticizing either Mellissa Fung or the providers of her "institutional support" — i.e., the CBC — when she was kidnapped outside the wire in Afghanistan in 2008. I’m not comparing Ms. Lindhout’s level of experience to Mr. Taylor’s or Ms. Fung’s — they're incomparable. But as Mr. Cohen says himself, she’s published articles and photographs and she’s worked for Iran’s Press TV. She might be a foolish journalist, an almost totally unknown journalist, and a journalist who's been an unwitting shill for the Iranian government. But it's devastatingly obvious that she is, in fact, a journalist."

Some of the debate has been conducted on a less acrimonious level.  In a Toronto Star piece headed "Amanda Lindhout: Gutsy reporter or naive thrill-seeker?" Michelle Shephard wrote:

"The fact is, journalists, experienced or not, get kidnapped. They have been grabbed in unprecedented numbers in the past five years and victims include respected reporters like The New York Times' David Rohde, who was held by the Taliban for eight months until he managed to escape in June.

"Many media outlets send their staff to "hostile environment training" courses to help prepare for this reality, among others. In 2006, I spent a memorable week in a Virginia field getting roughed up by ex-British marines, who seemed to relish the opportunity to yank me out of the car by my hair and throw a burlap sack on my head in a fake hostage-taking.

"But that's the difference when you work for the Star or major news outlets, as opposed to when you freelance. The paper pays for training and to protect journalists in the field.

"There's also the preparation. Before a brief trip to Mogadishu with a photographer, I had spent weeks researching, contacting dozens of local journalists and Somalis, and hired a driver and guards from various clans.

"What most people I know do – what I do – is to make every effort to talk to people who have already done what you are considering, placing the greatest trust in those who most recently made the journey down that road, into that village, etc.," says my colleague Mitch Potter, who has extensive experience reporting in the world's hotspots. "And, often, you end up cancelling or altering plans based on what you hear. Lindhout, by most accounts, had done little of this."

Ian Austen, writing in The New York Times, noted:

"Wars have long provided a way into journalism for some adventurous aspiring reporters (as well as death, kidnappings and injury for others).  And courageous, if inexperienced, freelancers have brought important stories to light that might otherwise have gone unreported.

"The Internet, digital photography and affordable, high-quality video cameras now make it easier than ever for anyone to report from just about anywhere in the world. A proliferation of television outlets occurring at the same time that large news organizations are cutting back on reporting potentially creates a bigger market for reporting by newcomers. But those developments also come as, several analysts say, reporting has never been more dangerous, for everyone. 'This business of inexperienced people going into conflict zones without proper preparation or training is increasingly worrying,' said Rodney Pinder, the former global editor of Reuters Television who is now the director of the International News Safety Institute, a charity financed largely by news organizations and based in Brussels. 'There’s a lot of ignorance behind some of this behavior, because people don’t realize how dangerous it’' become for journalists in the world today,' he said. Mr. Pinder’s organization estimates that about 1,500 people have been killed while working for news organizations in the last decade."

Rodney Pinder, quoted in Austen's article, was himself a foreign correspondent before becoming global editor at Reuters Television. He's one of several former news managers now prominent in an international movement that seeks to change some of the darker aspects of newsroom culture we all experienced and in many cases may have helped over the years to reinforce. It should no longer be acceptable, we believe, to dismiss the need for physical safety training or to discount the far-reaching effects of traumatic stress on reporters and other journalists, not just in conflict zones but on domestic beats as well.

No matter where we decide that Amanda Lindhout or Paul Pritchard fit within the journalistic spectrum, there can be no doubt that new blood in the ranks should always be welcome.  And so should new thinking about the range of risks journalists take to bring home the story.

Cliff  Lonsdale is president of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.  He teaches in the Graduate Program in Journalism at Western.