Sarah Topol talking to fighters in Libya

For young journalists looking to become the next John Simpson or Jeremy Bowen, the first rung on the career ladder used to mean hard graft in the newsroom of a weekly provincial newspaper or local radio station.

But shrinking budgets for foreign news, increasingly universal internet connectivity and relatively cheap flights to some of the world’s trouble spots have dramatically reduced barriers to entry for would-be foreign correspondents.

The scarcity of entry-level positions is encouraging some young journalists to skip the unglamorous training grounds of local newsrooms and head straight to some of the most hazardous countries on the planet in search of that elusive career break.

For organisations working to improve the safety of journalists it’s a cause for increasing concern.

“There’s something of a worrying trend developing,” says Hannah Storm, director of the International News Safety Institute. “I’m hearing it from people that have recently graduated. I’m seeing it on Facebook. And I see it sometimes when I talk to students in universities.

“It feels like now in places like Syria there are more and more people in their early or mid-20s with little or no experience - but with an overriding enthusiasm which makes them want to go out there and make a name for themselves, without taking the realities on board.”

Cairo-based journalist Sarah Topol, 28, recently received a Kurt Schork Award for her reporting from Libya for GQ magazine. She has written about the risks being taken by inexperienced freelancers. Janine di Giovanni says such people are being used as “cannon fodder”.

When Topol travelled to Gaza three years ago her portfolio of published work consisted of just a handful of reviews and features for an Egyptian newspaper.

Sarah Topol

I met her in London and she admitted she was under-prepared for her first hazardous assignment. Topol said she strongly discourages others from following her example. “The problem when I tell students my story is that I did exactly what you aren’t supposed to do,” she told me.

“The first time I wrote for a Western outlet I climbed down a tunnel in Gaza during a ceasefire that we weren’t sure was going to hold. I was lucky, but it doesn’t mean others will be lucky. I was stupid but it doesn’t mean others have to be stupid.”

No non-motorist of sound mind would consider climbing behind the wheel of a high-performance sports car and putting the pedal down without first having a few driving lessons.

Yet ambitious writers and film-makers seem increasingly prepared to put their life at risk in some of the most hostile environments in the world without basic first aid training, insurance or protective kit, or any form of back-up plan in the event of an emergency.

Gunman in Syria

At its most extreme, this ‘have a go in a war zone’ mentality has led the likes of Londoner Sunil Patel to head for Syria despite never having had a word published in the press. Indeed, even his online account of travelling alongside the Free Syrian Army is ghost written.

When I asked Patel via Twitter whether he had taken a flak jacket to Syria he replied “No… I had my brain which told me use effective cover at all times. Also I’m not a pussy.”

As far as I’m aware “not being a pussy” isn’t regarded by security experts as adequate protection against an AK-47 round travelling at 715 metres per second.     

A few notorious cases have blurred the line between newsgathering and activism. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists publicly condemned a US man, Matthew VanDyke, whose release from detention in Libya it had campaigned for after it emerged he had taken up arms and fought alongside anti-Gaddafi rebels.

VanDyke insists he never claimed to be operating as a journalist in Libya even though he had worked for newspapers in the past. Labelling himself a “freedom fighter” and “a veteran of the Libyan revolution”, VanDyke is currently working on a film in support of the Free Syrian Army. But, as British-Arab journalist Sakhr al-Makhadhi puts it, "film-making and weapons don't mix”.

Fighting in Syria

From Vietnam to the Arab Spring, young journalists have for decades hopped on the back of a Huey helicopter or a rebel jeep in search of a story that will persuade a news editor in London or New York to give them a chance to prove themselves.

But in a year that has been the deadliest on record for journalism Topol believes that taking excessive risks in a war zone should never be viewed as a fast track to fame.

“If you actually want to succeed in this industry you need to do good work,” she told me. “Anybody can put themselves in enough risk and get a story published. But the point of being a good journalist is to do good work no matter where you are, instead of taking a massive risk to write one piece. “It could potentially launch your career but it won’t prove you’re good at anything.”

More about safety on foreign assignments from the College of Journalism: in this film, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding shows how he and his team prepare for a trip to the Ivory Coast.

Comments

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by ~1fc9558aebfce9c7167eb2b052df2b03bc63654c

    on 27 Dec 2012 17:44

    Trouble with this line of thought is when something terrible happens... somebody's son or daughter has to put their lives even more at risk to attempt to 'rescue' the irresponsible... Being the parent and wife of somebody... I highly resent the irresponsible. I am always terribly distressed at the journalist predicament, and so saddened for their families... but, please, your irresponsible behavior can cost the life of my loved one. For instant the doctor who recently had to be rescued. I think the video that the Syrian or whatever nationalities they actually were of Austin Tice begging for his life should be viewed by all those considering such fool hardy adventures. He is or was, we still don't know which, an ex-Marine....

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by Craig Smith

    on 23 Dec 2012 12:15

    I think there's a fine line between bravery and foolishness that was crossed by Patel. Perhaps he should have read some realistic accounts of what happens during wartime journalism in articles like this one http://africanczech.blogspot.com/2012/04/perils-of-wartime-journalism.html written by a colleague after the death of South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl in Libya.

    Even a hint of common sense would suggest that the danger is very real, and that one might not return should one take on such a challenge. I suppose as long as the potential rewards are there, there will always be naive risk takers willing to 'give the war a go'.

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by James Rodgers

    on 14 Dec 2012 12:40

    Interesting and important piece - and everyone has to start somewhere. Remember Michael Herr in 'Dispatches', newly arrived in Vietnam, talking to a sergeant who tells him '"This ain't the ****ing movies over here, you know." Herr's reaction: 'I laughed again and said that I knew, but he knew that I didn't.'

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by Ted Welch

    on 14 Dec 2012 12:28

    nous - she's not being hypocritical, she's reflecting on her experience and giving her current opinion: she was lucky and now thinks it wasn't worth the risk, especially in the light of the increasing number of deaths of journalists, as mentioned in the article. Of course some will ignore her current views and try to copy her example, all she can do is tell them honestly what she thinks now.

    photokeyes. Yes it has been happening for a long time, Roger Fenton had had no experience of journalism before being sent to the Crimean war in 1855 ! Tim page was 18 when he drove overland to Laos, taught himself photography and went on to Vietnam where he became known as one of the most risking-taking photographers. Don McCullin said that when he started there might be 5-10 other photographers at some hot-spot, later there would be hundreds.

    In addition to the physical danger there is the less-discussed mental risk; soldiers can get PTSD from one conflict, McCullin covered about a dozen and suffered for it:

    "I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don't practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: "I didn't kill that man on that photograph, I didn't starve that child." That's why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace."

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by photokees

    on 11 Dec 2012 10:10

    This jumping unexperienced into covering conflicts happened in the so called old days also. I started in Sudan and Afghanistan in the mid-eighties and had never done a local news story before. Most of the photographers I met in those places were freelancers who had done the same.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by nousername31

    on 10 Dec 2012 18:08

    You constantly hear stories like Topol's in the journalism world. The reason young journalists do this is because they see it can lead to success - like Topol's case. It's unfair to expect people not to mimic what she did if they have the same goals. No offence to anyone, but it's hypocritical to tell people 'no,no don't do what I did' after your own success. Again no offence - I understand the point of the piece and people like Patel are crazy.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Duchess of Ambridge

    on 10 Dec 2012 15:45

    A former colleague once told me about how keen he had been to become a foreign correspondent: working on the tech desk at the time, he'd convinced his newspaper to send him out to a dodgy part to investigate their broadband connection, and then gone from there.

    He remembered meeting an old grizzled hack in a bar once and asked him how to become a war correspondent. The answer: "You go to a war, and correspond."

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