No matter how glamorously the movies may depict journalists in conflicts — brave, fearless, adventurous — that's not the way it works in real life. Trust me on this one: I've been there; I've covered several wars and life-threatening situations in more than four decades of being a foreign correspondent in Africa, the Middle East, Central America and Asia. Conflicts are terrifying to cover.
They sometimes cost journalists their lives. Anthony Shadid of the New York Times, who died last week while surreptitiously slipping into Syria to assess first-hand the incipient civil war there, was the latest casualty in a long line of correspondents and photographers. He was struck by a fatal asthma attack.
Mr. Shadid was certainly an experienced reporter. At 43, he had already won two Pulitzer Prizes, the highest awards in American journalism. Those awards — which he received when he worked for the Washington Post — were in recognition of his exceptional coverage of the continuing conflicts in Iraq.
He could well have rested on his laurels and coasted along in his career, perhaps taking on assignments in less fraught regions such as the United States or Europe. But Mr. Shadid believed that journalists need to see for themselves how societies dealt with stress, and how people coped with the horrors inflicted on them by rulers. He believed that such reporting offered insights for a larger world audience. He believed that such reporting was the basis on which future historians would produce more substantive works.
Because Syria is largely a secretive country whose government discourages foreign journalists from entering its territory, Mr. Shadid and a fellow Timesman, photographer Tyler Hicks, rode on horseback and crossed into Syria from an isolated part of Turkey. They spent a week in Syria, and had nearly reached the Turkish border again when Mr. Shadid was struck by the fatal asthma attack. Mr. Hicks carried his body in Turkey. It was the stuff of which movies are made. But what a sad, sad ending to a brilliant career.
Such careers are increasingly becoming all too rare in the fast changing world of foreign correspondence. Before coming to the New York Times in 2009, Anthony Shadid had received excellent training at his previous employers, the Washington Post and The Associated Press.
He had been put through the mill, as editors put it. He had been taught the importance of integrity and truthfulness in journalism; he had been steeped in the uncompromising value of deeply reported facts. He had been taught the difference between reportage and opinion.
But with the onset of Internet journalism, which has spawned a whole new generation of “journalists,” that critical difference seems to be diminishing. I would even dare say that the lines between fact and fiction are blurring, producing what I call “fact-ion.”
Fact-ion is not necessarily spawned by personal reporting. Anyone with access to the Web can find out most anything about any place or person thousands of miles away from his computer. Stories are sometimes invented, creating controversies when there ought to be none. The case of Jason Blair, the disgraced reporter at the New York Times, and of Janet Cooke of the Washington Post — who was actually given a Pulitzer Prize for stories that were made out of whole cloth — remain classics of ambition overtaking effort. There's a lesson for journalists in the untimely death of Anthony Shadid: No matter how honoured you are as a journalist, you can never afford to abandon the fundamentals of the trade. You simply have to be there to cover the story. Even if it costs you your life.
(Pranay Gupte, author of several books including the current bestseller “Dubai: The Making of a Megapolis,” published by Penguin-Viking, is working on a major study of 200 years of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)