Covering the War On Terror Gets More Dangerous

By: Joe Strupp

When the terror of Sept. 11 struck, American newspapers seized the moment, covering the unfolding international story with resources and depth unmatched in decades. More than five months later, however, the story is changing. Fighting in Afghanistan is winding down — for the moment — and the United States is turning its attention toward an “Axis of Evil.” U.S. troops are now involved in an anti-terror drive in the Philippines, and Secretary of State Colin Powell has all but promised a new military assault on Iraq aimed at taking down Saddam Hussein.

This means more reporters are being sent to hot spots overseas, forcing publishers to juggle resources and editors to send metro (and even lifestyle) reporters with no experience abroad to tackle terrorist-related subjects. And the war on terror has only begun.

Complicating matters are security concerns following the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was abducted in Karachi, Pakistan. Since his Jan. 23 kidnapping, foreign correspondents are traveling more in groups, remaining in closer contact with editors, and avoiding risky business. Several newspapers have sent reporters to survival “boot camps” or hired security firms to instruct staff, but they still may not be doing enough in this respect (see In Wake Of Pearl Case: U.S. Media Should Do More).

“This has heightened all of our fears,” says Chicago Tribune Foreign Editor Colin McMahon. “We are much more in touch with correspondents, several times a day. If they are planning something that sounds dangerous, I will say, ‘Hold off on that.'” But oversight is sometimes difficult in the electronically primitive locales where reporters often serve.

Recent data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) indicate 37 journalists were killed on the job last year, the most since 1995 when 51 deaths were reported. Among those mortally wounded last year were nine in Afghanistan, all but one of whom died after Sept. 11. “Things can happen very suddenly and unexpectedly,” says CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper, a former National Public Radio bureau chief in Moscow and Johannesburg, South Africa. “Training programs are good, but not a guarantee that harm won’t come.”

At the same time, other national issues, such as the Enron Corp. scandal and the approaching midterm elections, are forcing publishers to stretch resources more than ever to keep up with a rotating news platter. Coupled with that is the economic challenge newspapers face as advertising revenue barely creeps back to respectability, which continues to prompt cost-cutting and smaller staffs. How many publishers are planning ahead for a shape-shifting war that may last years?

“We’ve had to watch costs and reduce [staff] when we can,” says Boisfeuillet “Bo” Jones Jr., CEO and publisher of The Washington Post, which lost nearly 200 employees through buyouts and attrition last year. “If revenues drop by a sharp amount, resources will not be available.”

For E&P‘s complete report on “Dark Threats Abroad For Newspapers,” please see

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