Our Fearless Freelancers

by Jonah Shepp

Among the many pieces written in memory of Steven Sotloff since the news of his death broke on Monday, a few of them struck a particular chord with me, touching on the dangerous, precarious, but potentially greatly rewarding life of a freelance war correspondent: a job in which many young journalists cut their teeth and often make their careers. Michael Totten, who corresponded with Sotloff but never met him in person, remarks that he was “a hell of a lot braver than I am”:

I have not for even a second considered going to Syria during this conflict, and I doubt I’d be willing to go there even a couple of years from now if the conflict were to miraculously end later today. When he lived in Benghazi and everyone was heading for the exits, he told me—and I believed him—that Benghazi was the same old Benghazi, by which he meant mostly fine aside from some unfortunate incidents. Dangerous places are often, though not always, less dangerous than they appear in the media. At least they appear that way. Maybe that’s just a trick of the mind.

Joe Klein didn’t know Sotloff at all, but praises his ilk of freelancers:

I’ve known many stringers like Steve Sotloff and admired almost all of them. They turn up in war zones or other difficult places, looking for adventure and hoping to make a splash…or just tell a compelling story. Many of the brilliant war correspondents whose words and photos have graced Time’s pages started off as stringers. Other stringers can also be academics, with a language skill or a love for the country in question. (Believe me, it is easy to fall in love with Syria and Syrians, or the Yemenis or, in a different era, the Vietnamese.) Still others are local nationals, who risk everything to work for the American media for a variety of reasons–money, truth, patriotism, professional pride. But they all have one thing in common: they are lovers of freedom, personal freedom, their right to pursue the news.

Recalling her time as a stringer in Moscow, Julia Ioffe wrestles with the question of why young journalists take these risks:

[I]f we’re honest with ourselves, we journalists are not just doing it to inform the reader. We’re also taking these risks for ourselves, making the calculation that, stringing and freelancing in places where papers and magazines are either too scared or too cheap to send permanent correspondents, going to iffy places and often for a pittance, someone will notice our labors and reward us with more work, and maybe even a job. It is a bright and risky way to launch a career. It’s also a way to discover that, even if it’s hard to break in, if this is what journalism is, you don’t want to do anything else for the rest of your life. … But the gambit never paid off for Sotloff. His beheading will be, for most anyone who hears his name, the sum total of his career. That is so immensely crushing and disappointing. It’s also, for us journalists, a reminder of the gambit’s downside, the shortness and slipperiness of the future, and the utter fragility of our plans.

I came into journalism through a side door, never having intended to enter the profession until a job as an sub-editor at The Jordan Times simply fell into my lap, mainly by dint of my ability to write in English. I did a little reporting, but nothing very substantial. What I liked about the job was getting to know the country through what my colleagues reported, as well as what our stories left out, which came to me in editorial meetings and cigarette breaks with the reporters. Friends advised me to do what my colleague Taylor Luck later managed to do and offer myself as a stringer to American newspapers. I e-mailed a high school friend who works at the WaPo to find out how to do that, but never followed through with the editor she referred me to.

The reason, to be perfectly honest, is that I never really had the disposition of a reporter. I love the news, but digging it up requires a certain fearlessness that I never really had. And I certainly could never hack it as the sort of reporter who travels to a war zone: I just don’t have the guts. I could never, like Nir Rosen once did, disguise myself as a member of the Taliban to get an angle on the Afghanistan war that those who followed the US Army could not.

So while Taylor immersed himself in his reporting, learning to speak Arabic 100 percent fluently and making such deep connections in Islamist circles that we joked around the office that he had become one of them, I sat at my desk and got to know Jordan mainly through the stories I edited and by becoming close friends with some of my Jordanian colleagues. By no means is that a bad way to get to know a country, but I always felt a little guilty that I wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunity to go deeper, and worried that I was missing that extra insight that comes from “being there” in the middle of the riot or the battle or the aftermath of the natural disaster.

It takes a great deal of courage, or at least much more than I have, to travel to a foreign war zone and report directly from the rubble and carnage, to embed among rogue militias, to see the destruction firsthand and actually look the widows and orphans in the eye and give them a voice with one’s writing. It’s especially brave to do so without a net. Dedicated war reporters like Foley and Sotloff, to say nothing of their Syrian colleagues who risk imprisonment, torture, and death to get the story, are heroes to humanity in that respect. Bravery like theirs is hard to come by.