Friday, January 9, 2015

The Fear Factor in Journalism

Have you ever done, or not done, something out of fear? Have you ever crossed to the other side of the street to avoid a group of teenagers, white or black? Have you ever decided not to travel to a distant land because you feared violence?

I can honestly and unashamedly say I am guilty of letting fear control some of my actions. Though I have traveled to Israel numerous times, even during an Intifada, I have avoided vacationing in South America, part of an irrational fear and prejudice stimulated by too many clich├ęs about banana republics and banditto violence.

I don’t know about you but I am in awe of foreign correspondent who thrust themselves into tense surroundings in countries where they mostly do not speak the native tongue. While hordes of civilians and even military personnel flee scenes of combat, war correspondents charge toward the front. Don’t they have family to go home to? Don’t they fear for their lives, particularly in the Middle East where journalists are now prized for their hostage qualifications as stars of potential videotaped beheadings?

For journalists, the front lines no longer are confined to zones of deadly combat exchanges. The brutal massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, an act of butchery regrettably easily duplicated anywhere in the world by terrorists acting individually or in groups or even by state supported thugs, makes that plain.

We can track down perpetrators (as they did Friday in France), even stop them before they implement their evil, but we will never be able to eradicate the threat to society, not as long as crazed fanatics can distort a religion or creed and manipulate an individual to abandon all decency and kill at will.

During my working career as a journalist I didn’t have to fear my decisions would affect anyone’s life or death. That’s not to say fear did not enter some of my editorial and publishing choices. It was a fear based on economic consequences. Would we lose advertising if we criticized a supplier? Would we lose circulation if we questioned the strategy of a retail company? Would we lose an exhibitor if we didn’t shave booth costs or provide a better location on the trade show floor?

I’d like to say I resisted all those temptations to journalistic integrity and independence, that they all stemmed from my bosses’ blind pursuit of the almighty dollar while I remained true to the journalist’s separation of church and state—editorial and sales. There were times, I acknowledge, when I gave in. I rationalized that even The New York Times, no matter what its editor might say, made decisions based on current or prospective advertisers or which politicians the paper favored or rejected.

I compromised my values. Nobody died or was injured because I succumbed to my fears. Nor did any heinous philosophy spread. Simple commerce was transacted.

Fear has killed far more stories than the abhorrent attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo. Even as the world, particularly the journalistic community, extols “Je Suis Charlie,” few if any publications or Web sites have reprinted the images of Mohammed that provoked the assault. 

Should they? Sit quietly in a room surrounded by pictures of your family and decide for yourself. What would you do?