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The Importance of Truth in the Face of Journalistic Danger

In the pursuit of working alongside his favorite photojournalist, Shaan Bijwadia, MCAS ’19, found himself in the dark alleys of Manila, sandwiched between four reporters in the backseats of a truck, speeding through traffic lights to beat the police to the crime scene where they would document the bloody and chaotic campaign against drug consumption in the Philippines.

“Who knows what it is like to work as a photojournalist under these conditions, covering death and crime?” asked Bijwadia. “I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to know more about what it was like… turns out the lifestyle is not for me.”

Bijwadia, despite realizing that journalism is not in his future, never feared the dangers he was exposed to, nor did he let the disturbing images of bodies with bullet wounds in their heads affect his interest in pursuing photojournalism. “Everyone around me was afraid but I wasn’t afraid,” he said. Instead, he was concerned about the future of reporting on the brutal anti-drug campaign.

Bijwadia expected such a significant, international issue to have some sort of system around it to protect those fighting against the injustices he saw and experienced, but that is not the case.

“Every single journalist in Manila who was responsible for telling these stories was packed into a truck with me,” he explained. “If we crashed, we all died and the story was done. No one else would’ve covered it.”

Just like Bijwalli, we are witnessing how the press has become one of the most vulnerable institutions around the world, and how journalism is becoming an increasingly dangerous activity.

Reporters Without Borders states that more journalists have been killed in the first ten months of 2018 than in all of 2017. This year’s total already stands at 62 dead journalists, compared to 55 in all of last year.

The threat to journalists is well known in territories torn by wars or by endemic crime. For example, 14 journalists have been killed this year in Afghanistan, and at least seven have been killed in Mexico. The recent deaths of Viktoria Marinova in Bulgaria and Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey illustrate the growing dangers to reporters who are targeted by virtue of their profession.

Charles Sennott, an award-winning journalist, foreign correspondent, and speaker of Boston College’s Lowell Humanities Series thinks that one of the most pressing issues that contributes to the threats to independent journalists and freelance reporters is that they are often under-resourced in the field.

After the murder of his colleague, Jim Foley, Sennott, along with other reporters, recognized the importance of ensuring that correspondents in the field, as well as editors of news organizations, understand the need for more and better safety practices for journalists.

“Jim's capture and murder in the field at the hands of ISIS inspired many of us as editors and heads of news organizations to do much better to ensure that correspondents are appropriately trained in hostile environments, have adequate resources, such as insurance, and that they have completed a thorough risk assessment for their assignment and a communications strategy,” he said.

It is a hard time to be a journalist. Even in democratic countries, where a free press is seen as an essential part of civil society, the threats and violence against reporters have become increasingly present.

Physical attacks against journalists are rare in the United States. However, this issue is still relevant, especially after five staff members of the Capital Gazette, a local newspaper in Maryland, were shot by a man who had a history of conflict with the news publication.

The United States has fallen two places in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index as a consequence of President Donald Trump’s increasing attacks on the press. The organization states that the violent anti-press rhetoric from the highest level of the U.S. government might have contributed to the increasing number of violations against press freedom and journalists’ safety.

Angela Ards, director of the journalism program at BC, said that it is understandable if aspiring student-journalists wonder if the anti-media rhetoric will ultimately put them in danger.

Certainly such rhetoric creates negative social perceptions that make the job more difficult,” she explained. 

However, despite the potential dangers for journalists, there is still a sentiment among journalists and readers alike that the commitment to asking questions, verifying the facts, telling stories and enacting change is a noble and worthwhile pursuit. People are still hungry for the truth.  

Rather than pushing students away from journalism, the Trump era and the increasing attacks on journalists reaffirm their commitment to the craft.

“I never really saw the news as something that was vitally important, as something that had to be protected until the Trump era of fake news,” said Bijwadia. “You can’t have a functioning democracy without an informed public.”

Defending democracy in the age of Trump is certainly not the only factor. Sennott believes journalism should be thought of as a commitment to public service and to bearing witness in the field as a journalist, which is what Foley reflected through his career.

“I greatly admired Jim’s dedication, passion and courage,” said Sennott. “Beyond security issues, Jim’s legacy is also to a dedication to craft and to doing brave and courageous work in the field, to telling social justice stories in the field and to documenting the suffering of civilians who are always the ones caught in the middle of conflict.”

The Trump era and a dedication to public service appear to be bringing back the passion and ambition for journalism, which has struggled to cope with changes within the industry. Ards recognized that students expressed great interest in the field, causing Boston College to launch a new journalism minor this fall semester.

“The best way to fight against the increasing threats to journalists and the free press, both at home and abroad, is to double-down on our commitment to digging for truth, informing the public, building trust with communities to whom we are accountable,” said Ards. “A free press is a cornerstone of any free society.”

One year after bearing witness to the experience of reporting from zones of conflict and danger, Bijwadia knows he does not want to pursue a career in journalism, but still recognizes its importance.

“I still believe in justice and the truth," he reflects, "and I am very glad I got to experience it with other reporters.”

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