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2012 winners receive Kurt Schork awards in London

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 12 Nov 2012 15:10 GMT
Author: Di Quay
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2012 winners Humberto Padgett and Sarah Topol received their Kurt Schork awards before a capacity audience, predominantly fellow journalists,  in London on 7 November. Humberto, who won the local reporter category for his series of articles about Mexico’s drugs war, published in Emeequis magazine, spoke eloquently about the corrosive consequences of the drugs trade and dedicated his award to journalists who had been killed for seeking to tell the truth about it. (More than 70 in the last 12 years.) Sarah, an American based in Cairo, who won the freelance category for her coverage from Libya for GQ magazine, talked of her experiences and the value of independent journalism. The ceremony was hosted at the Thomson Reuters headquarters at Canary Wharf in London and opened with a welcome from Stephen Jukes,  Vice President of the Kurt Schork Memorial Fund. He outlined changes since Kurt Schork died, notably the advent of social media. Kurt had died before the events of 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Arab Spring. The information monopoly formerly enjoyed by mainstream media organisations had since been truly broken, he said, and the way people now consumed news challenged the old style objective reporting regime. He asked if the values of detachment and impartiality were still valid in today’s digital world. What should be the roles of freelancers and local reporters in the new news era; was it to uphold the values of the dominant journalism paradigm of the 20th century? Michael Stott, Reuters regional editor for Europe, Middle East and Africa, then gave a personal reflection on journalism today. He said he had first become aware of safety issues while based in Colombia. He had greatly admired Kurt Schork’s journalism and the standards Kurt had set with his honesty, vivid writing, clarity and compassion. On going to Reuters in London he had looked forward to meeting Kurt, but instead met his coffin as it arrived in Paris. The “huge grief” of friends and colleagues of Kurt was something that had always stayed with him and he kept it in mind when assigning journalists to dangerous places, asking if they were properly trained and prepared and if all safety procedures were in place. However,  one could never really know what war would involve. He ended by  quoting  from a speech given by war reporter Marie Colvin a couple of years before she died in Syria (in February this year). After the presentations to the winners,  a media panel discussion explored what drives journalists to take personal risks by going into conflict zones, and how they could be better supported. Chaired by Alex Thomson, chief correspondent of UK’s Channel 4 News,  the panel comprised Anthony Loyd, freelance for the Times; James Rodgers, former BBC correspondent and author of “Reporting Conflict”; Sarah Topol and Michael Stott. Each was first asked to explain their motivation in reporting wars. Anthony Loyd said for most it began with raw emotions: curiosity and a desire for adventure and travel. Then it could become ego-based and on the tail of that, some altruistic feelings could arise. Journalists were never just saints, he noted, when going into danger zones.  It was a very compelling lifestyle. James Rodgers said he went into academia instead, after years reporting conflict, when he watched coverage of South Ossetia and realised he didn’t have the same hunger as before to be the first person there. “I think fatherhood had something to do with it.” Sarah Topol said her motivation had been changing. At the beginning it was just wanting to publish stories “but after a while you want to do work that is longer, deeper and more meaningful”. Michael Stott noted that budget cutbacks meant many news organisations had fewer of their own people available to cover conflicts, and perhaps some did not fulfil their obligations to freelances as closely as they should. At Reuters, editors felt a duty of care to anyone working for the agency. Anthony Loyd said young freelances, going into war zones on spec, had to take responsibility for their own actions, but once the became more established suppliers to media organisations, they should start having support. Sarah Topol commented that magazines were keeping their own staff at the borders, rather than sending them into conflict areas, and were instead using freelances’ content. They were not improving or helping young freelances to get better at their work. Michael Stott said there needed to be a distinction between freelances with established relationships with commissioning editors and those who went off to wars “off their own bat”. The panel agreed that journalists can make their reputation very quickly in a war zone, which makes such assignments attractive to young starters. Speaking from the floor, veteran Daily Mail reporter Dame Ann Leslie commented that young reporters don’t think about their mortality. "There’s something about the adrenaline you get, covering such stories, but afterwards you think: ‘I’m nuts!’", she said. Another member of the audience commented that there were a lot of young people going into conflict zones without decent equipment, proper preparation or language skills and who should be discouraged from endangering themselves. Another noted that getting training was problematic for freelances, and very expensive. Perhaps the industry could put together a fund or access to bursaries to help young journalists get essential training, including basic first aid skills. Panel members shared details of lessons they had learned from working in dangerous places and also agreed that if media organisations wanted good content then they needed to use and properly support freelances . Up to date details about media casualties around the world can be found at www.newssafety.org , together with the INSI Safety Code.

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