Tug of war

In the aftermath of Michelle Lang’s death, a reflection on the journalistic impulse to go into battle. This week we feature Ann Hui‘s story from the spring issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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RRJOutside, a C-130 Hercules whines on the runway—probably American, thinks Matthew Fisher, a Canwest correspondent. He’s inside the Canadian media tent at the Kandahar Airfield in mid-January, telling me about the old days of war reporting. His tone is matter-of-fact, the result of working in over 14 war zones in 25 years. Back in the Balkans, Rwanda and Iraq, dead bodies littered the streets. There were no friendly forces in Rwanda. Forget about electricity, food or drinking water. You couldn’t jump into a conflict zone and call yourself a war correspondent. You had to prove yourself. In comparison, he says to me, Afghanistan is the “Cadillac” of war zones. “War reporting lite,” he calls being embedded. “It’s laid out like a banquet. There’s a way to file, internet’s provided, there’s electricity, there are meals.” A jet—an Aleutian 76 transport, he can tell from the reverse thrust—lands, interrupting his musing.

Fisher’s chatty mood is in stark contrast to two weeks earlier, when the 55-year-old veteran war reporter rushed back to Kandahar from Ottawa after his colleague and temporary replacement, Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang, was killed along with four Canadian soldiers in a landmine explosion. In the following weeks, many, including Fisher, found solace in the knowledge that Lang—driven, curious and passionate about telling the stories of Canadian soldiers and Afghani citizens—had volunteered to go to Kandahar “for the right reasons.”

That, of course, implies that there are wrong ones. Fisher sees war reporting as a dichotomy: there are old war correspondents—vets who’ve slept in cars and dodged Molotov cocktails—and rookies. But nothing is ever that simple. There are no right or wrong reasons. Motivation to go to war, like all motivation, is complex. Yes, every journalist is there to do a job, but some also do it for ego—the glory, to say they’ve done it. Some do it in hopes of career advancement. And others are adrenaline addicts, going from conflict to conflict looking for a bigger high. Self-interest can affect coverage—reporters driven by ego are less likely to stay for the long haul. But judging one reason against another doesn’t make sense. Just as wars aren’t won based on morality, we judge journalists by their work, not their motivations.

When I first heard about Michelle Lang, I thought, “In a few years, that could be me.” As a young journalist at the beginning of my career, I wondered how I’d react if an editor asked me to go to Afghanistan. I hoped that by talking to others who’d gone, I could understand how to make the same decision for myself. Because unlike law enforcement officials, firefighters or soldiers, risking our lives is not part of the contract. Yet journalists do it. Many even yearn for the chance, and I wanted to understand why.

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