Bearing Witness: Marie Colvin and the Future of Journalism

Since the death of The Sunday Times Foreign Correspondent Marie Colvin was announced on February 22nd 2012, tributes have been raining in from fellow journalists and readers alike. And rightly so.

Since the death of The Sunday Times Foreign Correspondent Marie Colvin was announced on February 22nd 2012, tributes have been raining in from fellow journalists and readers alike. And rightly so. Colvin’s inimitable career saw her sideline personal safety and travel to conflicts in Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Sarajevo and, finally, to Syria where she died reporting from the bombarded city of Homs.  Her writing often focused on the impact of war on civilians and her reports, like all great war writers, are made more haunting by their unfussy, accurate prose.

Operating as a female war correspondent is always imbued with shock value potential. Despite there having been a larger number of them than most people remember – Mary McCarthy, Nancy Cunard, Marguerite Higgins and Lee Miller being esteemed examples – most people can recall just one, Martha Gelhorn, with whom the majority of comparisons have been drawn with Colvin. However, the honest parallel between Gelhorn and Colvin lies not in sharing a gender – and whether this had a particular impact on the way they conducted their work – but in their unrelenting desire to publicise the truth of each situation they found themselves in, a truth that would have remained unknown to many without their reportage.

Amongst some quarters, there is a belief that the kind of journalism practiced by Colvin, involving travelling to the locale, regardless of geographical difficulties, and actively seeking out the stories not already being heard is dying out.  The death knell sounds to two tunes.  One, as explored in a recent television programme on The New York Times, is that the internet and social media which allows so-called ‘citizen journalists’ (i.e. correspondents without pay checks) to report directly without recognised press mediation, will transform the work of a journalist into a news collator.  Resting in the warmth of a western office, journalists will patchwork together stories from a selection of internet sites with no need – or, apparently, desire – to see the situation first hand.  Two, part of furore resulting from the phone hacking scandal is built on the nostalgic belief that there once existed a heyday of heart and head-strong hacks spurred onwards only by a personal crusade for The Truth, with no misbehaviour involved in reaching it.  It is believed that the actions of the few involved in the scandal prove that the integrity of journalism which apparently existed wholly at an indistinct point in the past has now entirely dissolved and will not be present among future journalists.

Stamp on this two part theory as follows.  To begin with, technological advances – meaning both the internet as an entity and the specific mediums of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube et al – has recently been greatly beneficial to communicating news from Egypt, Libya and, to a lesser extent, Syria itself.  If reports suggesting Colvin and the others killed in the same attack were deliberately traced and targeted via their satellite signals are true, it is a demonstration of the terrible flipside to an otherwise very positive tool.  Aside from non-professional journalists sending messages to the outside world, these aspects of technology also aid the professionals as well, by allowing them speed and frequency of communication at a previously unprecedented level.

Ultimately, in seeking to communicate the lesser acknowledged stories, often of the kind which do not make front page news, but are crucially in need of attention ASAP, the benefits of technology are manifold.  Thus propositions that modern technology could contribute to a diminishing desire to seek out the silenced are flimsy and contrite.  Indeed, modern technology and journalism could be rather good friends and utilizing this equipment could enable more accurate coverage of events instead of creating collections of journo-collators cobbling together unsubstantial articles from others’ blogs.

Suggesting that journalists would be willing to become lazy collators rather than investigators, coincides with a more generalised post-phone hacking view of the profession which discounts the existence of any integrity or desire to strongly inconvenience oneself in an attempt to uncover unreported, important realities.  As with all versions of nostalgia, the foundation to this view is the idea that there existed a past golden age and this is incorrect.  There have, and unfortunately always will be, writers more interested in producing exposé sludge and giving a yet louder voice to overheard celebrities.  Equally there will always be those more interested in reading this kind of writing rather than reports of humanitarian crises.  However, universally acknowledging all journalists as immoral because of phone hacking is as ill thought out as labelling all MPs from now until forever as thieves following the expenses scandal.

As an individual and a professional, Marie Colvin is irreplaceable.  But, as with her predecessors Martha Gelhorn, Lee Miller and Hunter S. Thompson who all possessed indefatigable morals, there will, thankfully, be others with a itching to write founded on the want for truth.  Aversion to injustice is fundamental to humanity and as long as we keep reproducing, good guys with broken biros and friendly Blackberries in hand will emerge and start walking to the sound of Colvin’s words.