The general disdain for journalists is well known – in fact it’s a common trope used in the humour of media circles. However the recent threats made on two journalists’ lives following last week’s shootings in North Dublin have quieted the typically acerbic wit of the media community.
The Independent News and Media journalists have been advised by Gardaí to leave their homes as they could be at risk from armed criminals for their coverage of Dublin’s recent outbreak of gangland violence.
Circumstances surrounding the shootings are unclear, with the Continuity IRA claiming the first attack, but Gardaí believing that it – and the apparent retaliation shooting of Eddie Hutch – is the result of a drugs dispute.
What is clear however, is that the threats made to the two journalists involved in the gangland coverage have acted as a sobering reminder of Veronica Guerin’s death twenty years ago.
By definition, a journalist is a person who collects, writes, or distributes news. Taking into account the widely held news values set down by sociologists Galtung and Ruge, a story’s worth is increased in value by factors such as negativity, unexpectedness and conflict. As a result, journalists habitually enter conflict zones to obtain stories of a higher news value, often putting themselves in danger in the process.
What this means, is that even after Guerin’s high-profile murder, risking one’s life for the sake of a story is still considered stupendous rather than stupid in media circles.
Two days after she was shot, Guerin was supposed to speak in a segment of a London forum titled “Dying to Tell the Story: Journalists at Risk”. We will never know what the journalist intended to say during her talk, but her sudden death compounded the fact that – in their desire to get a good story – journalists are literally selling their souls.
Guerin’s murder was condemned by then Taoiseach John Bruton as “an attack on democracy”, a sentiment eerily echoed by Enda Kenny’s comments on the recent threats; “One of the pillars of a functioning democracy is freedom of speech, and in any self-respecting society journalists must be afforded the freedom to go about their jobs without fear of reprisal.” All over the world journalists are threatened and killed as a direct result of the stories they publish, but it is shocking to many that in a democratic society like Ireland’s, journalists lives are still at risk.
Journalists’ unpopularity stems from the intrusive nature of their jobs. Typically, a journalist will only be interested in a person if he or she has something to hide, and the resulting revelations don’t tend to encourage feelings of fuzzy companionship between writer and subject.
Nevertheless, in cases of crime journalism there is a certain degree of give and take between journalist and criminal. Although revealing sensitive information to the public is bound to decrease journalists’ popularity in the criminal world, media is also a good way for any upstart gangster to garner a fearsome reputation. And the same is true further afield, I.S is no stranger to the power of media and frequently uses it as way to intimidate.
However there are various dangers that lie in this symbiotic relationship, and all too often the journalist reporting on the conflict goes from being the storyteller to the story. Following the death of photojournalist James Foley at the hands of IS, a number of media companies stated that they would no longer be accepting stories from freelance journalists who were going into conflict zones of their own volition.
This was a bid to remove the incentive for journalists to put themselves in danger for the sake of the of a story. IS was quick to harness the attention it received when it targeted media personnel and as such, the risk of reporting in that particular conflict – especially without the training or protection of a larger organisation – was eventually deemed not worth the story.
Similarly, the seriousness with which the INM journalists’ safety is being treated shows that Gardaí have not forgotten what happened twenty years ago. However amid reports that the journalists are still writing – but from a secure location – it would seem that in this case that the public’s right to know, or the journalists’ need to tell, is worth more than the possibly empty threats of an unknown source.
Freedom of speech – and subsequently freedom of the press – is central to a democratic society. Whether they are unpopular or not, journalists should be able to do their jobs without fear of violent or fatal reprisals. However whatever our high and mighty notions of democracy are, we do not live in an ideal world. It’s common knowledge that pursuing a story in a conflict zone can quickly turn sour, but despite horror stories like Guerin’s and Foley’s, each journalist has to make his or her own choice – is it worth it?
by IONA SHEARER