All the news that's dangerous to gather
Proportionately far more journalists than US soldiers are being killed in the Iraq war.
This was the plan: to cover the war from the inside, whatever the cost. Now, with the conflict in Iraq in its 21st day, news organizations around the world are counting those costs among their own.
Considering the short duration of the war, this campaign has been the deadliest for journalists in modern history. While many expected a high number of casualties among reporters because of the sheer numbers "embedded" with allied troops and the dangers of covering war on the frontlines, the journalist death toll has been roughly 16 times that of coalition troops. To date, 11 news organization employees have been killed since March 21.
"The statistics are certainly chilling - to have this many journalists killed or missing in just three weeks of conflict," says Joel Campagna, Middle East program coordinator for the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, "News organizations had months of preparation for this conflict, months to mull the risks ... but it's difficult to prepare for something like this."
The dangers may be becoming greater. As troops and journalists shift their focus to Baghdad, urban warfare represents the next risk. Yesterday, two journalists belonging to Reuters were killed and at least three more were injured when a US tank fired on an 18-story hotel in the Iraqi capital. Separately, a correspondent for the Al Jazeera television network was killed after the organization's Baghdad office was hit by US bombs.
CNN's Walter Rodgers, who has been embedded with the 3rd Squadron of the US Army's 7th Cavalry, came under heavy fire when the squadron headed for the southern suburbs of Baghdad. His crew, traveling in a Humvee, were unharmed. "There were ambushes on both sides of the road, rocket-propelled grenades, machine-gun fire," he says. Mr. Rodgers says the high casualty rates in this conflict are "a direct consequence of the embedding process, because the Pentagon allowed many journalists to come up to the tip of the tip of the spear."
Some 600 reporters and photographers are now embedded with US and British troops in Iraq. Another 1000-plus "unilaterals," journalists not officially paired with a military unit, are in and around the country.
Mr. Campagna estimates that between 100 and 150 reporters are camped in Baghdad. Another 100 to 200 hundred are probably in Northern Iraq; and several dozen more are scattered throughout the countryside.
No casualty rate for journalists in any recent conflict compares. The four reporters killed in the 1991 Gulf War died not in combat, but in the chaos that followed the withdrawal of US troops.
Though a deadly stretch in November 2001 saw eight journalists assassinated in Afghanistan in 16 days, there have not been such a number of combat casualties since the Vietnam war - and then, the 64 journalists who lost their lives there and in Cambodia did so over almost 10 years.
Despite the high number of reporter casualties, some reporters and editors say it could have been much worse. To prepare for the conflict, many members of the international press took part in hazardous environment courses or US military training to prepare for the possibility of biological or chemical attack, kidnapping and torture, and use as human shields. Many believed that reporters on the ground in Iraq would be targeted as they had been in Afghanistan.
But although two Polish journalists were reportedly abducted by armed Iraqis Monday - only to escape later - many of "those fears have not been realized," says Susan Bennett of the nonpartisan Freedom Forum's Newseum in Arlington, Va., which keeps a memorial to journalists lost on assignment. "The journalists killed thus far were killed because of where they were, not who they were."
Not all members of the press who have died in Iraq have been casualties of war. David Bloom, one of NBC's embedded journalists, died of natural causes. Another reporter for Britain's Channel 4 News fell off a hotel roof in northern Iraq.
The other nine deaths have been casualties of conflict. On Monday, Christian Liebig of the German news weekly Focus and Julio Anguita Parrado of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo - both embedded journalists - were killed when an Iraqi rocket hit a US communications center on Baghdad's southern fringe.
BusinessWeek magazine reporter Frederik Balfour, embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, was deeply troubled by the incident. He had known the reporters killed: He and the Monitor's Ann Scott Tyson had shared a tent with them before they were assigned to separate brigades within the 3rd Infantry, and the four had talked about how they felt the war should be covered.
"They wanted to be safe. These weren't the kind of guys on the first tank into Baghdad," Ms. Tyson remembers. "Of course it was to be expected that some journalists would be killed - I just didn't expect it would be those guys."
When Christopher Power, one of Mr. Balfour's editors at BusinessWeek, heard news that two journalists had been killed south of Baghdad, he went cold. It was half an hour before he could reach Balfour by phone.
The magazine says it will support Balfour's decision to leave any time. In fact, the day may well be approaching when the dangers Balfour faces cease to feel worth the risk. "Tomorrow," Power says, we'll revisit the theme again: Where are you and how are you and do you want to get out?"
In newsrooms across the globe, today, editors and producers are asking those same questions. Bill Spindle, who edits Middle East coverage for the Wall Street Journal, says his paper has done all it can to keep its four unilateral reporters and five embeds away from the front lines.
"Seeing so many colleagues dying is disturbing on a daily basis," he says. Even so, Mr. Spindle says he believes there's a way to cover this war well while minimizing the dangers.
"There's a huge side to this war, that hasn't been reported," he says. "So no, we are not leaving. We're hoping to get there."