Economy

A Passion To Bear Witness: Why War Correspondents Take The Risk

  • Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid died of an apparent asthma attack on Feb. 16, while on a reporting trip in Syria. Pictured here in 2003, while working for The Washington Post, Shadid types by moonlight on a hotel rooftop in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq.
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    Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid died of an apparent asthma attack on Feb. 16, while on a reporting trip in Syria. Pictured here in 2003, while working for The Washington Post, Shadid types by moonlight on a hotel rooftop in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq.
    Bill O'Leary/Courtesy of The Washington Post
  • Shadid takes notes outside the Najaf office of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a leading Shiite figure in Iraq, in 2003.
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    Shadid takes notes outside the Najaf office of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a leading Shiite figure in Iraq, in 2003.
    Bill O'Leary/Courtesy of The Washington Post
  • In 2002, while working for the Boston Globe, Shadid was shot in the shoulder while reporting in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
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    In 2002, while working for the Boston Globe, Shadid was shot in the shoulder while reporting in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
    Michael Robinson Chavez/Courtesy of The Washington Post
  • Shadid won two Pulitzer prizes for international reporting, in 2004 and 2010. Here, he poses on the campus of Brown University in the year of his second win.
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    Shadid won two Pulitzer prizes for international reporting, in 2004 and 2010. Here, he poses on the campus of Brown University in the year of his second win.
    Steven Senne/AP
  • Shadid was one of the signature chroniclers of the 2011 revolution in Egypt for The New York Times. Here he talks with residents of Cairo's impoverished Imbaba neighborhood.
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    Shadid was one of the signature chroniclers of the 2011 revolution in Egypt for The New York Times. Here he talks with residents of Cairo's impoverished Imbaba neighborhood.
    Ed Ou/Courtesy of The New York Times
  • Shadid (in the top right part of this photo) follows Egyptian protesters during clashes between pro-Mubarak supporters and anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square, 2011.
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    Shadid (in the top right part of this photo) follows Egyptian protesters during clashes between pro-Mubarak supporters and anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square, 2011.
    Ed Ou/Courtesy of The New York Times
  • Shadid (center) shares a story with colleagues Moises Saman (left) and Kareem Fahim (right) in a  Cairo restaurant after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last year.
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    Shadid (center) shares a story with colleagues Moises Saman (left) and Kareem Fahim (right) in a Cairo restaurant after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last year.
    Ed Ou/Courtesy of The New York Times
  • A new book by Shadid, House of Stone, will be published next month. Here, he balances reporting in Manama, Bahrain, with tweaking the manuscript (to his right).
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    A new book by Shadid, House of Stone, will be published next month. Here, he balances reporting in Manama, Bahrain, with tweaking the manuscript (to his right).
    Ed Ou/Courtesy of The New York Times
  • In the Cairo bureau of The New York Times, Shadid (left) files a story on Mubarak's trial on Aug. 3, 2011.
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    In the Cairo bureau of The New York Times, Shadid (left) files a story on Mubarak's trial on Aug. 3, 2011.
    Ed Ou/Courtesy of The New York Times

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Journalists don't talk about the danger. They don't usually recount the moments of agonizing terror that come after a bad decision to continue on down the road as the faint sound of mortar shells grows louder.

For war correspondents, it is a choice, after all. No one asked the civilians caught up in the bloody mayhem if they want to be there. There is no sign-up sheet when war breaks out, or a state's army is ordered to shell civilian neighborhoods, or snipers take deadly aim. Reporting in harm's way is part of the job; to bear witness to the suffering is part of the calling; to force to the surface the meaning in the violence is the goal. You have to get close for that kind of reporting.

The death of a young, gifted reporter, Anthony Shadid, has raised the question: Why take the risk? Every reporter who has ever packed a flak jacket and helmet along with a pair of running shoes knows the answer. Shadid took his share of risk, but no more than many of his colleagues. Those who work in dangerous places are devastated by the loss but understand his passion to bear witness. They have all done the same.

He was often asked to account for what "outsiders" saw as a certain recklessness. He'd already had some hair-raising close calls including a gunshot wound and a kidnapping along with his New York Times colleagues in Libya. An interviewer for Mother Jones magazine put the question directly. How did Shadid determine which stories were worth risking his life? Is there a story worth dying for?

"I've struggled with that question a lot," he said. "I don't think there's any story worth dying for, but I do think there are stories worth taking risks for."

For Shadid, the Syrian revolt was one of those stories. Most correspondents covering the conflict do so from Lebanon. For almost 10 months the Syrian government has kept tight rein on visas, and even those allowed to enter are heavily monitored. But in recent weeks, as the government's grip on the country has loosened, many reporters have crossed illegally into Syria to bear witness to one of the bloodiest chapters in Arab uprisings.

CNN's Arwa Damon made it all the way into Homs, a city under brutal siege for months. While citizen journalists have taken a lead role in supplying real-time videos of the shelling of civilian neighborhoods, Damon's presence gives an international platform and a voice to the suffering. It is no longer possible to look away. She is taking an incredible risk and I thought of her when I heard the news of Shadid's death. I wondered how she would answer this question: Is a story worth dying for? I am sure it is a question she hasn't considered. Anthony Shadid's death reminds reporters in the field that the worst can happen. I doubt it will stop any of them.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR.