Great journalism takes great courage

Brave reporting is not all dodging bullets.

By Ben DuPlessis

Brave reporting is not all dodging bullets

By Ben DuPlessis

The best journalists are idealists, no matter how cynical they appear. They smother self-doubt and ignore threats. Great reporters, even when it’s hard or risky, champion truth.

Courage, says Dr. Julia Yang, psychology professor at Governors State University, near Chicago, is a reaction to fear. “Courage is a psychological muscle; we can actually firm it up,” says Yang.

One way to tighten the mental muscle of courage is to do scary things. Yang says courage comes from accepting that fear exists, and dealing with it head on. “Fear,” she says, “is to not face the issue.”

In journalism, fear creates complacency. Complacency means shoddy reporting and lazy copy. Fear is easy. Great journalism is hard; it means thinking deeply.

Fear can come from deadlines or doubt. Other fears are more blatant. The Committee to Protect Journalists says in 2012 alone, 66 journalists across the world were killed in Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 12. Of these, 32 journalists were murdered “in direct reprisal for his or her work.”

[pullquote]The real stories are out there in areas where you feel uncomfortable.

– John Miller, Former chair of journalism, Ryerson University.[/pullquote]

All fears are unique – created in reaction to a lifetime of thoughts, associations and feelings. This, says Yang, makes courage complex.

Yang’s 2010 co-authored book, The Psychology of Courage, captures this complexity. When writing the book she devised a scale for measuring courage – and scrapped it. The problem, she found, came from trying to understand courage as a quantifiable thing instead of a pattern of thought.

Yang says courage is situational, showing itself in different ways depending on a person’s history. Everyone learns to deflect life’s emotional sticks and stones depending on the quality of their upbringing and the particulars of their personality. Courage, says Yang, is one part fuel and one part armour.

Courage overcomes. What must be overcome depends on the reporter. Courageous journalists walk through the wreckage of war zones and natural disasters, photographing the dead and poverty-stricken, even as it hurts to look. It was courageous when American broadcast reporter Edward R. Murrow was walking through the smoke and wreckage of London during the Second World War, interviewing Britons as bombs fell.

The journalist doesn’t matter, the story matters. Whether working overseas or at home, courageous reporters care more about reporting than themselves.

Kyle Shaw is editor of the Coast. (Photo: Ben DuPlessis)

Kyle Shaw, editor and co-founder of Halifax weekly the Coast, describes courageous journalists as people who resist the urge to back down – people with tenacity and purpose. “You’re just not scared of what people think about you,” he says, “You’re not scared if the thing you write is going to get you ostracized among a group of people. You’re not scared if people write nasty comments online.” The really courageous journalists, says Shaw, usually live their professional lives fearlessly. “Those people can be pains in the ass to work with,” he says. “They don’t care what their co-workers think of them and they don’t care what their boss says.”

There is tension, he says, between the impracticality of constant intensity and the reality of deadlines. “Deadlines are exceedingly practical things,” says Shaw. “It’s not always practical to be courageous. It can be dumb.”

Tension grows when publishers care about the financial survival of journalism and reporters care about the importance of their work. The cost of informative journalism has to be weighed against its return. Shaw says despite circumstantial disputes publishers understand the value, economic and otherwise, of a courageous reporter.

Not everyone appreciates these reporters. “The people in the public don’t particularly like them, their colleagues don’t like them, their manager doesn’t like them,” says Shaw.  “As the publisher you know that they’re doing real, true, courageous journalism.”

Courage defends what the reporter knows is right. “There’s this journalistic moral compass that guides you,” says Shaw.

Following this compass, doing the right thing, can lead reporters to sit for hours through long and dull city council meetings. It can mean following a tip about a powerful person’s criminal connection at great personal risk. It can mean going to war.

[pullquote]There’s courage in journalism at a really basic level.

-Kyle Shaw, the Coast[/pullquote]

The Chronicle Herald sent reporter Chris Lambie and photojournalist Christian Laforce to Afghanistan in 2007. They spent four weeks documenting the lives of soldiers from the Maritimes.

The Committee to Protect Journalists made a list in 2013 of countries where the murders of journalists in the past decade remain unsolved. With five unsolved deaths, Afghanistan ranks seventh highest in the world.

Photojournalist Laforce sealed his camera equipment with tape to stop dust from destroying it. He brought back pictures of how Afghans and Canadian soldiers lived in war.

In his photos: soldiers wearing broad-brimmed hats look over a table of ornamental blades at a bazaar, a man with a white beard and long brown robe drags a rake through a green poppy field, and children smile.

Joanne Firth, Laforce’s wife, and girlfriend at the time, knew a trip to Afghanistan would be good for his career. She was also afraid. “It was pretty nerve-wracking.”

Laughing, Laforce remembers reading a news story on the flight to Afghanistan about “some Taliban warlord in the region saying that he was going to turn kidnapping journalists into a cottage industry.”

Regardless, Laforce was resolute. He wanted to tell the story. In preparation for the trip, the Chronicle Herald sent him to a Hostile Environments and Emergency First Aid Course in Virginia, instructed by retired British marines. Having learned kidnapping survival skills, Laforce says the secret to breathing through a bag over your head is to bite the fabric so you don’t build up carbon dioxide.

Laforce and Lambie didn’t run into serious trouble in Afghanistan—the closest they came to danger, Laforce says, was joining soldiers for a nervous night patrol through an area which hadn’t been recently surveyed. Because he felt fully protected by the military, Laforce says the trip wasn’t courageous. His wife disagrees, saying he told a story knowing it was high risk.

The most dangerous thing Laforce does, in his estimation, is drive. When he tells people he spent a month photographing soldiers in Afghanistan, they’re amazed. “Then they’ll hop on their motorbike and think nothing of blasting down the highway at 160. I’m not going to do that, man. You know how many bike accidents and car accidents I’ve covered in my career?”

Laforce and the hypothetical motorcyclist have different fears. Fear is either understandable or bewildering. One reason fear is so hard to talk about is because it’s often unique. What is terrifying to some is commonplace to others. A divide in personal experience makes it easy to rank people who do physically dangerous things as the most courageous. But if the courageous are people who do things others won’t, whether it scares them or not, then courageous journalist aren’t just people who go to war zones.

Courageous journalists do the work others shrug off. It’s easy for journalists to give in to complacency, forgetting journalism is a vocation, not a pay cheque, and to send repetitive, pedestrian copy to print. A courageous journalist does more.

At the Coast office in Halifax, Kyle Shaw says the courage of journalists whose work isn’t dangerous is often forgotten. Shaw says journalistic courage isn’t just a “willingness to stick your head up to see what’s going on when people are firing guns. It’s not the courage to go to Afghanistan. That’s certainly an example, but I think there’s courage in journalism at a really, really basic level.”

Journalists, by nature of the job, reach out with their work. Journalists empathize with everyone; they have to, out of desire to report objectively. Empathy, honesty, skepticism and rationality are like cardinal virtues in journalism. It takes courage to keep these virtues when confronted by a sea of deadlines.

John Miller, who was chair of Ryerson University’s journalism school for ten years, says universities need to inspire young journalists to do better reporting by highlighting the importance of empathy. “You have to encourage journalists to put themselves in uncomfortable situations to get the real truth,” says Miller. “People are naturally wary about doing this. We’d all like to live our lives in comfortable surroundings, surrounded by people we understand and identify with. But the real stories are out there in areas where you feel uncomfortable.”

Larry Cornies, journalism ethics instructor at the University of Western Ontario in London Ont., says journalism schools teach students everything they need to be courageous, giving them “a grasp of the facts, lots of practice questioning people and a sense of fairness with respect to your interview subjects.”

Cornies says a young reporter’s decision to act courageously, to ask the right people the right questions, can’t be made for them by a journalism school. Courage is a personal choice.

At the Coast, Kyle Shaw says while interns from journalism schools know how to report, they don’t necessarily have a reporter’s grit. When they do, he says, they don’t pick it up in class.

“We had this incredible intern last year,” says Shaw. “She looked young and non-threatening.” Having come to a new city for the first time from rural PEI, and knowing no one, she left the Coast’s office with a list of names of people to interview.

“She never batted an eye,” says Shaw. Instead, she called her mother, confessed her fears, and made herself confront them. She travelled across the harbour to Dartmouth, a city she had been told—Shaw had no idea—was a sprawling, lawless ghetto. She came back with a story. It wasn’t until she’d finished at the Coast that she told Shaw about her terror.

“She had more courage than all of us put together,” says Shaw. “That was real fearlessness. Now, did her journalism school teach her that? No, it did not.”

Reporting can always get better. Courage, hard as it is to come by, is the most valuable of journalistic qualities because courageous journalists know how important it is to go further, past the point of comfort, to the real truth.

Beside Province House in Halifax, in a park cornered by flowerbeds, stands a statue of iconic Nova Scotian journalist Joseph Howe. Most people don’t think of journalists as being as brave like firefighters or police officers. Courageous journalists put the work before themselves—recognition is incidental.

Howe stands in the park, arm reaching out. His courageous work changed Canada. The fight for a free press helped bring about real democracy, and is a reminder of how much is owed to journalistic courage.

Courageous journalists, idealists, do what others won’t for the sake of what could be.

Edit/Layout by Beth Brown

King’s Journalism Review, November 2013.