The death of a journalist

I didn’t know James Foley, the American journalist who was brutally executed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) this week.

I had not read any of his coverage from Syria, where more than 170,000 people have been killed in a brutal Civil War. I had not watched any of his video reports from Afghanistan, where he was embedded with US troops during combat, or from Libya, where he spent 44 days in captivity after being taken by troops loyal to dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

I didn’t know James Foley, but I do know one of his cousins. When I realized this connection – after it became apparent that Foley had been captured a second time (on Thanksgiving 2012 in Syria) – I had two reasons to notice. I am a journalist too.

Journalists, like individuals in most professions, come in many types.

James Foley
Some find their calling locally, in small towns across the country, toiling in relative anonymity covering city council meetings, School Board meetings and documenting the good – and bad – that happens in Anytown, USA.

Some have loftier goals regionally or nationally, reporting (in print or through broadcast media) for larger audiences about issues that impact more people. Others are drawn around the globe, to find stories and issues that are significant elsewhere.

And a decidedly tiny percentage of the rest are motivated by something that only they can quantify – a desire to face incredible risk and danger in pursuit of human stories that might otherwise never be told.

James Foley was one of those.

In Afghanistan, he documented the eye-opening brutality of war, riding in armored vehicles with US troops, filming as they took gunfire and suffered casualties. His coverage was raw, emotional – and real.

In Libya, he wrote about a budding army of young rebels fighting to win control from the brutal rule of Gaddafi.

In Syria, he described with painstaking clarity the impact of a civil war that left natives confused, emotional and grieving for lost relatives and friends, unsure and fearful about their own future, and that of the nation they once loved.

Foley did what every journalist strives to do. He told life stories about people – often directly through the eyes of those who were living them – explaining why they were significant and why we should care.

He was, in short, what all journalists strive to be. Informative. Fair. Knowledgeable. A voice with perspective.

But he did what very few journalists could imagine doing. In pursuit of the truth, he risked everything in places he had never been, where he had no inherent need to be, covering conflicts that seemed endlessly complicated and often irrational.

His was a special kind of calling – one that most of us in this industry can’t fathom. I love my profession but am not willing to die for it. Foley was. He is a hero of journalism.

It’s easy, perhaps natural, to become encapsulated in our own world. Lacking any real connection to far-away lands, conflicts such as those in the Middle East at times seem to blend into one another, and we don’t take the time to examine them in any detail.

That’s what makes the work that Foley and others like him have done so critical. His coverage attached names to faces, gave insight into the daily struggles of life in a war zone and yet still managed to reflect hope in the voices of those who were suffering through it all.

I didn’t know James Foley, so I don’t know what it was inside him that yearned so intently for the experiences he sought out in the Middle East, soon after he began his second career – as a journalist – at the age of 35. I don’t know why, after being kidnapped and held in Libya, then returning safely to the U.S., he still felt compelled to venture to Syria months later.

But as he explained once about covering the region: “We’re not close enough to it. And if reporters, if we don’t try to get really close to what these guys – men, women, American [soldiers] … are experiencing, we don’t understand the world.”

Thanks to Foley’s determination and bravery, those who have read and watched his coverage understand the world a little better.

Yet cruelly at the same time, in light of his murder, it seems to make even less sense than ever.

* * *

The Global Post, for whom Foley freelanced regularly during his career, compiled a collection of his work on its website here: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/140820/james-foley-reporting.
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