A new video from Reporters Without Borders begins with upbeat martial music and footage of military parades across multiple countries. Crisply uniformed forces march (or goose-step) as despots applaud their approval. But after about a minute of vivid images of May Day parades, august veterans and shiny munitions, these words appear on-screen: “Without independent reporters war would just be a nice show.”
Abruptly, the sanitized vision dissolves into quick cuts of mostly black-and-white photos depicting war’s reality. The grisly images of unfamiliar and iconic conflict photography ends with this on-screen sentence: “Support those that risk their lives to bring us the truth.”
That’s what brothers Charles and Richard Sennott are trying to do. Charles, a former foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe and co-founder of GlobalPost, is also the founder and executive director of the GroundTruth Project, whose stated goal is “to teach the next generation of journalists the value of on-the-ground reporting based on a human reading of events.” Richard, a former Star Tribune photographer whose assignments included covering conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, El Salvador and the West Bank, is now the photo editor for GroundTruth’s “Emerging Photographer” series.
GroundTruth is a phrase coined from NASA, Charles said via e-mail from Lebanon, where he’s reporting from a refugee camp on the Syrian border. A human measurement is taken on the ground and compared to digital satellite images, he explained. If discrepant, he added, trust the human reading — the ground truth.
For journalists, getting the ground truth is increasingly difficult — and dangerous. Worldwide, 67 journalists were killed last year specifically because of their reporting, according to Reporters Without Borders. And the carnage continues: Seven Afghans working for Tolo TV were killed by a Taliban suicide bomb on Wednesday. Last year, an additional 43 were slain, but a motive could not be established, much as with Monday’s death of globally noted photographer Leila Alaoui, wounded in a Jan. 15 Al-Qaida terrorist attack in Burkina Faso that killed 29.
Regardless of method or motive, the tragedies are taking a toll on people and the profession. The number of photojournalists, for instance, has dwindled 40 percent in 15 years, noted Reporters Without Borders.
Journalists being killed doing their job “has a chilling effect on the journalists who have managed to survive, and some end up having no choice but to stop,” said Margaux Ewen, Reporters Without Borders’ advocacy and communications officer.
“It’s open season on journalists,” said Richard Sennott. War reporting “feels relatively safe when you can establish sides, when a battle line is drawn, and you have a front line,” he added. “But these days, the front lines don’t exist with kidnapping and ransom. You have to be aware 360 degrees, 24 hours a day. There’s always vulnerability. And the tactics used by ISIS are totally barbaric.”
In fact, Reporters Without Borders states that “a full-blown hostage industry has developed,” with 54 currently held worldwide. Also worldwide, the number of journalists jailed reached 153 last year, including Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who on Sunday was finally freed from Iran. The result of these trends is that news organizations have become more cautious about sending journalists who haven’t had safety training from the GroundTruth Project or other organizations.
The rising risks may make some wonder why journalists feel compelled to cover conflicts firsthand — especially when their capture can complicate U.S. foreign policy or become the story itself.
But, as Ewen points out, “Independent journalism is responsible for showing the truth in conflict zones. … National news agencies and military forces may be telling a completely different story that hides the truth.”
That’s GroundTruth’s goal, Charles Sennott said. “We need reporting from the ground to calibrate our understanding of complex terrain in the digital age where we have too much information coming at us from all directions but not enough context and in-depth reporting to frame the issues.”
Richard Sennott concurred. “There are stories that need to be told, and there are voices that need to be heard, and photography is a visual listening to the people,” he said. “People who are viewing this work need to be transported to the front lines to understand exactly what is going on there. People die in the same way, but every war is different.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.