Journalism In War

For the last week or so I helped with a statement about the ongoing plight of journalists in Afghanistan. As the war has rumbled on past the 10 year mark, the very people working to try to report on the horrors of war have increasingly suffered first hand.

What really struck me as I did research for this piece was the fact that most journalist deaths are specifically targeted murders, not simply as a result of being caught in the crossfire.

“The first casualty when war comes is truth” – Senator Hiram Johnson

  • For some extremely well presented data on violence against media personnel in Afghanistan see this excellent site.

Reporting about armies and about combat is very dangerous for journalists because the secrets they might reveal are upsetting to some of the most dangerous individuals in the world – the high profile case of Anna Politkovskaya (who was murdered just over five years ago) was most likely connected to her work done investigating the actions of the Chechen and Russian armies in the disputed North Caucus border area.

While most of the major data gatherers on journalism deaths tend to agree with the verdict that murder remains the most important issue, they tend not to agree on things like exact figures or gathering methodology. I decided it would be interesting to compare some of the data gathered on journalist deaths.

I chose four sets of data from the following sources:

  1. Reporters Without Borders (RWB)
  2. International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
  3. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  4. International News Saftey Institute (INSI)


There are a few gaps in the data either because the links were dead or because they had not gathered data for that year. Also, the data from INSI represents the reported deaths of all media personnel, not just journalists as with the other three.


This shows that, although the figures differ hugely, the peaks & troughs match somewhat.

Looking at this graph I’ve made some tentative observations:

  • 2004-2007 seems to have been the worst period — could be largely to do with the Iraq War
  •  2002 represented a lull
  • The last 3 years has seen a steady decrease which, hopefully, indicates the positive influences of advocacy and/or the massively increased amount of safety training for journalists (resources here)
  • However, over the course of the last decade there seems to have been no major reduction of journalist deaths


Standard Deviation = 347.76752

This indicates how hard it is to make any real judgements about this data – the huge deviation in total figures from source to source makes it incredibly difficult to get a real overview of the dangers facing journalists. 524 deaths in 10 years less than half 1287 – who do we believe? Using the average score is preposterous – the deaths of journalists are definite cases that need to be tracked and plotted properly, not estimated.

Without generally accepted, quantifiable data it is difficult to properly link ‘problems’ with ‘solutions’. As the solution must reflect the problem for implementation to be effective, perhaps one of the major issues facing journalists in the field stems from this lack of proper data.

Some might argue that the problem is external: global politics have produced a highly deadly environment for journalists that has kept the death rate high, there’s nothing that can be done to stop that.

Well yes, the highly documented wars of the last ten years have kept the death rates high but can we say that this is massively different from any other decade? With an increasingly globalised media it seems fair to project that all wars worldwide will be extensively covered, not just the Western ones. It seems likely that there will be many wars being covered by journalists for the foreseeable future. Simply citing the Iraq and Afghan wars as being unusually well documented (and therefore dangerous) cannot be a useful reading of this issue. Lowering the death rate cannot rely on a peaceful world environment.


Not really knowing how many deaths occur is an issue that could suggest that we also don’t actually know where or why they’re happening with much degree of certainty. Without that knowledge, targeting protection programmes to those who most need it is impossible.

Targeting problem areas might be limited by a particularly repressive government that maintains impunity for killers of journalists but, again, relying on this to change cannot be a useful way of lowering the death rate. In the long term, of course, it is absolutely necessary for such things to be addressed but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a commitment to short term change.

This is where the data comes back in. The way I see it, what is most interesting about the data above is that it shows us that improper monitoring and the lack of oversight on a global issue, like the killing of journalists, makes real change even harder to achieve than the dirty, dangerous world makes it already.


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