The appalling killings of four newsmen who died last week at the hands of a mob in Mogadishu again point up the dangers in reporting from abroad in a violent world.
The newsmen were neutrals, among several under escort by a militia and trying to report on a United Nations raid on a Somalia command post. Two were photographers, two reporters. A fifth newsman, who like three of the others worked for the Reuters news service, was stabbed, shot and stoned but escaped.- TOTALITARIANISM is in retreat in much of the world and has virtually disappeared in the Americas. Censorship has receded in many countries. But threats, intimidation and even murders of newspeople are actually increasing as a means by which governments or groups try to still opposition. And newsmen continue to die in the globe's many wars and brushfire hostilities.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 1992 was a record year for assaults on journalists, 1,600 attacks in 107 countries, up 20 percent from 1991.
Picking up from these figures, Norman Schorr says in the Overseas Press Club Bulletin for May that "the absolute form of censorship - murder - has continued at an alarming rate." In the past five years, at least 250 journalists have been killed. Last year 103 were slain in 26 countries. At least two thirds of these were murdered for their news work, the others covering hostilities. Twenty-five have died in the Yugoslavian wars, including an American, David Kaplan of ABC News.
- "EACH NUMBER represents real people, abused, just trying to do their jobs."
The Inter American Press Association, which watches press freedom in the hemisphere, reported at its April meeting that at least nine journalists were killed in the preceding eight months in Latin America, in addition to dozens "detained, harassed or driven into exile."
IAPA has been trying to do something about harassment of journalists by sending four fact-finding missions abroad. It also voted to hold its midwinter meeting in Guatemala next March in protest of the Guatemalan government's refusal to prosecute where there have been "death threats, physical attacks by armed thugs, the burning of newspapers - all done with total impunity at least partially due to the negative atmosphere created by President Jorge Serreano Elias' verbal attacks on the press."
The U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Admiral Jonathan Howe, echoed that concern when he deplored the most recent killings as "an outrageous and barbaric attack on innocent people doing their work honestly and professionally."
One of the greatest of the "go anywhere, do anything" type of foreign correspondent was the irrepressible Harrison E. Salisbury, who died last week at 84. Salisbury ranged the world, but especially the Soviet Union and Asia, in a lifetime of reporting, as a young man for United Press and then for the New York Times. His colleagues praised him for, among other virtues, his physical and moral courage, as in his controversial reporting from behind the lines in Hanoi in 1966 or from Tiananmen Square in 1989.
My favorite anecdote about Salisbury, however, has nothing at to do with his celebrated exploits abroad or his many books, prizes and offices. It was mentioned in his obituary that covered a page in the Times.
The obit said that on his return in 1955 from five years in Moscow for the Times, Salisbury "plunged into local reporting with an enthusiasm rare for a returned foreign correspondent, a routine assignment on dirty streets turning into a major series on the city's sanitation system."
This is the way the story has gotten in to journalism lore:
The Times had a way of knocking a celebrity reporter down a peg when he came back to the office from overseas. The bosses put Salisbury at a desk in a room with more than 300 reporters and assigned him "the garbage story."
- THE GARBAGE STORY was a legendary assignment that went ordinarily to a young reporter. It came about, so the story goes, when Iphegene Ochs Sulzberger, the Times' owner, came home from Europe and observed that the streets in French cities were immaculate and wanted to know why New York's couldn't be at least clean.
Typically the reporter called on to do the story rang up the sanitation department, got a few quotes about how much garbage and litter were picked up daily, and turned in an "item."
Salisbury, on the other hand, produced a whole series on New York garbage that started on page one and ran for days, dissecting one of New York's major problems with a thoroughness never before seen in the city's press.
No wonder the Times obit called him "intrepid, enterprising and indefatigable." No wonder that story is still being told in journalism schools.
Is anybody listening?
The complaints of letter writers and the carpings of critics often make little difference to how the media go about their work.
I have urged the junking of the word "cop" in news reports, especially in headlines, but, alas, with no discernible impact on news practice. Once all copy desks except those on the most raffish tabloids were on guard against it, and some papers, like the Los Angeles Times, banned it outright as a cheap and disrespectful word.
The Tribune's reader advocate, John Cummins, also recently did battle against the word.
Then last week, Cummins' column told about how a physician had written to him, annoyed by a headline (over an AP story) that read, "Guinea Pigs Wanted: Ads Bring Them In." Cummins said the physician said the headline was "an insult to our patients and inaccurate. We never refer to our patients as guinea pigs."
Cummins agreed. "The headline reflected insensitivity to the people involved in the story."
But only days later the Tribune used the term "Human Guinea Pigs" in large red letters over a story in its science and medicine section. It even made no difference to the page editors that the story did not use the term, except to quote one of the women volunteers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center: "I don't feel like a guinea pig. I feel like a queen."
Milton Hollstein is a professor of communication at the University of Utah.