“What if there is no pack? What if we don’t know what happened?” Elaine Monaghan reflects on the need for journalists on the front lines.
In my life as a witness or reporter, three news events stand out: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the signing of Northern Ireland’s peace deal in 1998 and the attacks that killed 3,000 people in the United States in 2001.
I dwell often on the first and the happiest, when journalism was my dream. I was a student in Berlin, convinced that apart from becoming a parent or falling in love, I was witnessing the most influential event of my life. (True, so far.)
Heaved up onto the wall by German friends, then looking down into the faces of soldiers who on a different day might have shot me, I wanted to share what I was seeing. I joined Reuters News upon graduating in 1993.
Northern Ireland made sense. I grew up Catholic in southwest Scotland, touched sometimes by the same Catholic-Protestant tensions on the green, divided island you could see on a clear day from just up the coast.
We knew not to ignore an unattended bag in case it was an Irish Republican Army bomb. In school, we learned about “The Troubles” and tried to understand why people fought over centuries-old bloodletting and insults.
Later, assigned to cover the peace talks, the words flew out of my fingers. With every killing, I reassured myself that we were headed for peace — an imperfect one perhaps, but proof that any conflict can end.
I often marvel at the resilience of journalists covering bloodshed in the Middle East. Who can see its end?
“I often wonder how it is for journalists who come close to ISIS but never return.”
Once, during Northern Ireland’s marching season, I tried to track down the leader of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, whose reputed specialty was killing Irish Catholics. I spotted “LVF” graffiti on the end of some terraced houses, knocked on a door and asked if they could pass on a message. I didn’t share my Irish surname.
I didn’t get the interview. But when I saw some of the loyalists later in the front line of what would become a violent protest, I felt I was getting closer.
I often wonder how it is for journalists who come close to ISIS but never return.
When the British and Irish governments and eight political parties signed the peace deal, I celebrated inwardly what felt like the bending of history, the defeat of darkness by light, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.
I knew what poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney meant when he likened that moment to the rolling away of the stone from Jesus Christ’s tomb.
On other assignments I covered Chechnya and Kosovo, came close to death in Albania and skirted petrol bombs in Belfast. The drumbeat of death, bloodshed and destruction always depressed me. But I was able to shake it off, convinced my reporting had value.
None of that prepared me for 9/11.
“I felt useless.”
On September 11, I felt almost as unprepared as I was on the day the Berlin Wall fell. I was working as a State Department correspondent for Reuters, hearing every day about U.S. foreign policy interests and conflicts around the globe.
Minutes after I watched the planes hit the Twin Towers on TV, alarms sounded and we were evacuated. A plane was loose, headed who knew where, maybe for us.
Throngs of people were walking, zombie-like, through the U.S. capital. I passed near the White House and almost ran into a flak-jacketed security official who was gesticulating and screaming, “Go the other way! Go the other way!”
I needed no convincing and headed towards the nearby office of my now husband. His Internet was working so I sent out reassuring emails. I then made my way to Reuters to discover someone had reported there was a car bomb at the State Department. Presumably the plane hitting the nearby Pentagon had sparked the rumor.
I felt useless.
That evening, I took money out of a cash machine and hid it in hiking boots I had bought when I was a student. They had carried me up hills of Scotland, north of Russia’s Arctic Circle and through the mud of a refugee camp in Albania.
When I rediscovered the dollars years later, I relived the nauseating fear and sense of helplessness as I slowly extracted the worn pieces of paper.
Lookouts who stand on the watchtower
These days I teach journalism. With every Islamic State attack, I have two conflicting thoughts: We really need young people to go out and cover the world. And how can I justify encouraging young people to risk their lives?
Technology has moved on since I joined Reuters 22 years ago. We have all manner of social media and techniques to verify user-generated content at a safe distance. But nothing can replace the insights of a professional reporter on the ground.
We cannot expect to navigate our way out of the mess of the Middle East without good journalism.
As I followed coverage of the Paris attacks on Friday, I wished for the safety of colleagues I knew would be running towards the attacks. I was reminded of the words of Archbishop Justin Welby at St Bride’s Church in London a year ago.
“The front-line reporter is the one who sees first-hand what is going on,” he said. “They are the lookouts who stand on the watchtower, day after day and all night long, in the watches of the night.”
St Bride’s is on Fleet Street, the home of British journalism and where my cohort of Reuters trainees gathered, gutted, to honor George Short, a master craftsman and our mentor, who died in his sleep in 1997.
“Stick with the pack,” Short would say as we discussed the risks of war zones. “If you can’t decide what to write, just write what happened.”
But what if there is no pack? What if we don’t know what happened?
Elaine Monaghan has worked for two decades in international journalism. For Reuters, she was a correspondent in Russia; chief correspondent in Ukraine and Belarus, and in Ireland and Northern Ireland; and U.S. State Department correspondent in Washington. She joined The Times in 2002 as Washington correspondent before moving to the Congressional Quarterly. Currently she is professor of practice at Indiana University’s Media School.