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New York Times: David Carr February 23, 2012

Posted by jaldenh in News & Views.
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February 23, 2012, 3:45 PM

When Reporters Become Targets, War Coverage Is Reduced to a Stream of Videos

The terrible news that Marie Colvin, an American-born correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, had been killed, along with Rémi Ochlik, a French photographer, while covering the conflict in Syria early Wednesday reminded anew of the bitter cost of reported information.

Coming less than a week after the death of Anthony Shadid, who suffered a fatal asthma attack on the way out of Syria, the loss made it clear that Syria is a very dangerous place to practice perhaps the most important journalism of all. Indeed, two of the remaining journalists in Homs — Edith Bouvier and Paul Conroy — are seriously injured and struggling to get out.

Much of the information making its way out of Syria is now being seen on YouTube, where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad continue an assault on various cities. The video is visceral and heart-rending, but absent any context. Where are we? Who is doing the shooting? And what stakes are in play?

Here’s something YouTube can’t do:

They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.

Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.

“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her 3-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her 5-year-old son, cling to her abaya.

Ms. Colvin’s last dispatch was like so many before it: a portrait of what happens when the bombs land, when luck runs out, when civilians end up in the crucible of conflict.

War has become a far more chronic, less predictable affair. Journalists find what safety they might by using the symmetries of conflict: front lines, base camps, enemy positions and friendly forces.  But in places like Libya, in Syria and Afghanistan, knowing where to be is a far more complicated exercise. When governments are willing to turn their guns on innocents to go after combatants, there is no safe place to stand.

Ms. Colvin made that clear in what became her last call to CNN.

The last thing wanted by lawless regimes who govern through might is transparency and the free flow of information. Journalists, in this context, are no longer neutrals, but targets unto themselves. There were reports that the impromptu media center in Homs that Ms. Colvin was working out of had been targeted.

More and more of the information about continuing conflicts has moved to the Web, but it falls to the viewer to piece together what is actually under way. And even now, the Syrian government is trying to strangle various streams coming out of the conflict.

For many of us, war is becoming a remote affair, something that happens on a computer screen. Absent contextual reporting, it starts to sound and look alike: a shaky video in which the distant thrum of war draws suddenly close, the bullets and bombs land, there is much screaming and running, then the screen goes blank. Many of the videos are shot at great risk and represent citizens’  attempts to capture a horrible truth in their midst, but are the people tuning in to see the truth or a snuff film shot in real time?

It is probably worth pointing out that wars are, more and more, being fought remotely as well. Drones search and destroy, many of them operating by a joystick that is thousands of miles away.

Civilians have been dying by the hundreds in Homs and elsewhere — “We live in fear of a massacre,” Ms. Colvin wrote in her final dispatch — but it took her death, and the death of her colleague Mr. Ochlik, for us to turn our heads in earnest and really stare at what is under way in Syria. (As is now the custom, their dead bodies served as grisly totems on YouTube.)

Their deaths shoved a dirty, terrifying war into our faces, but who will come behind them? Even the most skilled war correspondent, steeped in years of conflict reporting, would have to think hard about crossing into Syria right now. The video coming out of Syria is important, but without the lens of journalism, it is not sufficient. War requires witness that goes beyond clicking on a YouTube video.

 

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