My heart broke for Steven Sotloff, the second American journalist beheaded in Syria, not only because of the barbarity the Islamic State group inflicted on him but also because he died trying to push back against the trend in news coverage.
Over the last couple of decades, we’ve all seen trivialization of news, a drift toward celebrity, scandal and salaciousness.
So far this year, nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC have offered a combined total of three minutes of coverage of the civil war and impending famine in South Sudan, and nine minutes about mass atrocities in Central African Republic, according to Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, which tracks such things. In contrast, the missing Malaysian airliner drew 304 minutes (almost five times as much as the Syrian civil war).
That’s why this is a moment to honor Mr. Sotloff — and James Foley, the other American journalist executed, and so many others out on the front lines — not just for his physical courage, but also for his moral courage in trying to focus attention on neglected stories. He shone a spotlight in dark nooks of the world to help shape the global agenda.
It was a struggle for him.
“I’ve been here over a week and no one wants freelance because of the kidnappings,” Mr. Sotloff emailed another journalist while in Syria before his kidnapping, according to Reuters. “It’s pretty bad here. I’ve been sleeping at a front, hiding from tanks the past few nights, drinking rainwater.”
One of the biggest changes that I’ve seen in my career is that journalists and aid workers have become targets. Virulent extremist groups now see journalists as enemies and subject captives to abuse and torture. The Islamic State reportedly waterboarded Mr. Foley before murdering him.
In conflict areas, any petty criminal with a gun can kidnap journalists or aid workers and sell them to a group that will demand ransom. European nations pay these ransoms, which both enrich the terror groups and create an incentive to kidnap other foreigners.
A New York Times investigation found that al-Qaida and its direct affiliates had raised at least $125 million from kidnappings since 2008. That’s a powerful business model for a terror group, and it’s one reason journalism and aid work is more dangerous today.
Last year, 70 journalists were killed for doing their jobs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Over the last few years, some 70 journalists have been killed while covering the Syrian conflict alone, where about 20 are missing. Most of those are Syrian, and let’s remember that the greatest danger is faced not by the Western journalists but by local ones — or by the local translators and drivers working for Western journalists.
In Darfur once, my interpreter and I were frantically interviewing villagers as a warlord was approaching to massacre them. Finally, my interpreter said: “We’ve just got to go. If they catch us, they’ll hold you for ransom. But they’ll just shoot me.”
One way to honor Mr. Foley and Mr. Sotloff (and Daniel Pearl and many others killed over the years) would be for the United States to speak up more forcefully for journalists imprisoned by foreign governments — often by our friends, like Turkey or Ethiopia. Think of Eskinder Nega, serving an 18-year sentence in Ethiopia, or Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a Thai serving 11 years for publishing articles deemed insulting to the king of Thailand.
Today there are Steven Sotloffs covering war in Ukraine, Ebola in Liberia, malnutrition in India — and also covering unemployment and crime in American cities.
They are indefatigable and relentless. Once, while I was covering the Congo civil war with a group of Africa-based reporters, our plane crashed. It was terrifying for me, but another passenger (a reporter based in Nairobi) told me it was her third plane crash. Yet another colleague on that plane was later killed covering a conflict in West Africa.
Photo and video journalists deserve a special shout-out, for they often take the greatest risks. A reporter like myself can keep a distance, while that’s useless for those with cameras. My first rule of covering conflicts is never to accept a ride from photographers, because when they hear gunfire they rush toward it. Just Wednesday, it was confirmed that a Russian photojournalist, Andrei Stenin, had been killed in Ukraine.
So, to Steven Sotloff and James Foley and all brave journalists putting themselves in harm’s way, this column is a tribute to you — and to your loved ones, who suffer as well.
We mourn you, we miss you, we admire you. Your commitment to the serious over the salacious elevates not only journalism but the entire global society.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.