Dying to tell the truth

Cliff LonsdaleMichelle Lang was the first Canadian journalist to be killed in Afghanistan since Canadian forces joined the conflict there in 2002. What is the shocked journalism community to take from the death of a young reporter who had so much to live for? Cliff Lonsdale, president of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, offers some reflections.

Michelle Lang wasn’t the only reporter to die in 2009. According to the grim tally maintained by the International News Safety Institute, she joined about 130 other journalists and support workers killed worldwide. On average, that’s more than two deaths a week. An overwhelming majority of those journalists died in their own countries and were killed for what they wrote or what others feared they might.

It may be tempting, then, to say that Lang’s death, though tragic, was atypical. The 34-year-old reporter for the Calgary Herald died, along with four Canadian soldiers, when the armoured vehicle in which they were travelling near Dand, in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, was destroyed by a roadside bomb. The vehicle was undoubtedly targeted, but there’s no suggestion the Taliban had any idea a journalist was among those inside.

But Michelle Lang wasn’t just someone whose number came up in life’s cruel lottery. She, too, died upholding the principles of journalism. She was out there doing her job, when she could have been sheltering in the relative safety of the base, content to retail filtered information rather than testing reality for herself. She was doing what all good journalists do, whether it be in the villages of Afghanistan or the streets of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.      

This was her first assignment to a war zone. She joined the convoy on patrol near Dand just two weeks after the assignment began. Previously, she had specialized in health reporting, for which she won a 2008 National Newspaper Award. By all accounts, she conducted herself in Kandahar in a careful and professional manner. Not all reporters do.

“There is a small subset, I would say, a fairly small subset of foreign correspondents who, for want of a better term, are crazy,” Colin Perkel, currently on his second tour in Afghanistan for The Canadian Press, told me after his first tour. “And some of them are maybe the best correspondents and get the best stuff, because they are crazy. They will put themselves into situations – get themselves into situations – with a kind of wanton abandon that is, for the rest of us, pretty striking.”

The observation rings true. But Perkel and I agree that most reporters who cover conflict aren’t like that, and it is clear Lang wasn’t either. The district in which she went on her first and only ride-along was generally considered one of the safest in the area.

Would it make any difference to the shock and grief of her family and colleagues if we could point now to some protocol breached, some training withheld, some rash decision but for which Michelle Lang might have lived to tell her story?

Fear of mortality is fundamental to the human condition. Our default is to deconstruct each tragedy in search of lessons that will prevent recurrences. Inability to determine blame isn’t reassuring – it makes the horror all the more troubling.

On the day of Lang’s death, John Stackhouse, editor of The Globe and Mail, declared:  “In the wake of this attack, the Globe will again review our policies, staffing and training to ensure we are not assuming undue risks in our desire to report fully on the Afghan conflict. But such attacks do not diminish our commitment to staffing Afghanistan. We have a duty to report first-hand on a country that has drawn so much of our national attention. In carrying out that duty, we have allowed our journalists on the ground – consulting with their editors – to make decisions that may affect their safety. But we know this is a war zone, and war zones present inherent risks that we must accept, within reason, along with our duty to report.”

You wouldn’t get much argument on that from Colin Perkel, who also told me:  “I think you still have to have some sense of adventure and you still have to want to get the story, and be prepared to assume a certain amount of risk. It’s risky. Just getting off the plane in Afghanistan is risky. If your attitude is zero risk, you may as well not get up in the morning.”

Getting up in the morning and doing a job that supports democracy – whether the job that day is extraordinary or humdrum – aligns any good reporter with the heroes and heroines of the profession. It makes a death no less tragic and it lessens the need for vigilance and balance on safety issues not at all.

Cliff Lonsdale is President of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.  He teaches in the Graduate Program in Journalism at Western.