On Thursday evening, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the SPJ hosted photojournalists Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks, reporter and videographer Stephen Farrell, and Beirut bureau chief Anthony Shadid, all of The New York Times, to talk to students about their ordeal in Libya. The four had been captured by Col. Qaddafi’s forces at a checkpoint after covering the fighting near Ajdabiya, and held for six days by a series of soldiers in an unstructured chain of command, during which they never knew whether they would be killed or not.
Moderator Ann Cooper, professor of professional practice in international journalism, asked the four how they and their editors evaluated which stories were too dangerous to cover. Stephen Farrell responded that there are many areas of the Middle East and Africa that are known to be too difficult to reach, but that “those aren’t the hard decisions.” The hard decisions, he continued, involve “the areas that you thought were safe a week ago, a day ago, an hour ago—it can change that quickly, it can change in ten seconds, as we found out in Libya,” he said.
Linsey Addario agreed, and stressed the significance of on-the-ground information and constant re-evaluation of the safety of a given area. In Libya, for instance, cities have switched back and forth from the hands of the rebels and of the government and back again, and the front line is shifting all the time. “It really emphasizes the importance of your local drivers and translators, and people on the ground—you have to do your homework every minute of every day places you can go and places you can’t,” she said.
The conversation repeatedly returned to the group’s driver, twenty-one-year-old Mohamed Shaglouf, who was with them when they came under attack on the first day but who has been missing ever since, and whose fate is unknown. All four were visibly pained when they spoke about him. “You hope that you’re taking these risks because these stories wouldn’t be told otherwise—I mean, that’s the most altruistic version of what we do,” said Anthony Shadid. “But we do have to live with the burden that the choices we made may have gotten someone killed. I’ve been hurt before—I was shot ten years ago—I found that one much easier to deal with than this one, because I could suffer, and someone else didn’t have to suffer because of choices that I made.”
Tyler Hicks added, “The choices you make in the field those risks are worth taking as long as nothing happens. Every time you take a chance and you get away with it, you say to yourself ‘that was a risk worth taking.’ But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.”
Later, both Addario and Farrell spoke about the bravery of the Libyan people—the drivers, the translators, and the sources for their stories and subjects of their photographs for The Times —who worked with the journalists and identified themselves by name, despite the risks inherent in doing so under Qaddafi’s regime. Farrell said that when they asked his sources their names, he could almost see them internally evaluating the danger of doing so, and then invariably deciding to go ahead; it was that important that their stories be told. ”It was a powerful statement,” said Farrell. “They were saying, ‘This is what I want, I know the consequences, but I’m going to say it anyway.’”
Here is a full video of the event—the panel begins about seventeen minutes in.