If history is usually written about the winners, stories of courage are usually written about the famous. Yet some of the bravest actions of journalists are unknown—obscured by the passage of time, hidden by veils of anonymity or buried by systematic repression. The “Courage” issue of Media Studies Journal aims to correct this imbalance.
With a few exceptions, the stories that we tell in this issue are not the familiar tales that journalists recount when they want to establish the heroism of their craft—Ernie Pyle covering World War II, The New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers, The Washington Post exposing Watergate. Instead, we found examples from, in the words of Richard Whelan on Robert Capa, “the edge of things.” Our subjects are primarily journalists who worked on the margins of popularity, who blazed new but solitary paths or who left fleeting legacies. Their lives and their work are a reminder that tests of integrity usually occur far from the spotlight. Perhaps that is why brave journalists are reluctant to speak of themselves as such: they know that there are others, not lucky enough to gain fame, who are equally deserving of recognition.
Even if our subjects found notoriety in their own time, they were not always thanked for their bravery. Jealousy, political disagreements and differing conceptions of journalism have fueled criticism of some of the people that we cite here for courage. This reporter’s principled stand is that reporter’s grandstanding. Another reporter’s courageous exclusive can be a publisher’s nightmare.
To complicate the subject further, brave journalists, like others who put themselves at risk, do not always act for reasons that win popularity or acclaim. Actions with laudable consequences can be the result of egotism, stubbornness and ignorance, as well as selflessness, prudence and principle. Finally, it is worth recognizing that for all the emphasis that American journalism places on the virtues of detachment, some of the most admirable journalists brought to life in these pages—Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Robert Capa, Letizia Battaglia—entered journalism with a sense of commitment to a cause that they never abandoned. Capa, Wells-Barnett and Battaglia also stand out for the recognition they achieved in their own lifetimes.
Few journalists can look forward to becoming famous heroes, but most can expect to have their fortitude tested in a lonely place. Let the lives examined in these essays be an example when that time comes.
This issue of Media Studies Journal spans the past and the present. In “Yesterday,” David Copeland examines the tangled legacy of the trial of John Peter Zenger. Graham Russell Hodges unearths the story of David Ruggles, an African-American journalist and abolitionist in New York City during the 1830s. Félix Gutiérrez explores Francisco P. Ramírez’s response to Yankee conquest in 19th-century California. Sarah L. Rasmusson interprets a photograph of women selling a suffragist newspaper. Pamela Newkirk recalls the life and work of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, journalist and anti-lynching activist.
Robert W. Snyder interprets a Frank Hurley photograph of the Shackleton Expedition. Richard Whelan presents Robert Capa’s vision of the Spanish Civil War. Pierre Albert explains the journalism of the French Resistance. Bernard L. Stein brings to light the story of Hazel Brannon Smith, an editor who supported the civil rights movement. Hank Klibanoff explores the work and motivations of L. Alex Wilson, a civil rights reporter.
In “Today,” Alexander Stille chronicles the work of Letizia Battaglia, the anti-Mafia photographer from Palermo, Sicily. Betty Rollin interviews two women who revealed the physical scars of their breast cancer surgery. Eric Newton and Mary Ann Hogan meditate on why the greatest journalistic courage is often found in the smallest places.
Examining the recent history of Russian journalism, Emma Gray shows why bravery has been the exception rather than the rule. In a photo taken during fighting in Chechnya, Jonathan Sanders explores the work of an American photographer who practiced the journalism of commitment. Richard J. Meislin shows how one journalist’s reporting, along with his own public battle with AIDS, helped to change the lives of gay people at The New York Times. Mark N. Trahant looks at struggles for press freedom in Native American tribal journalism. From Northern Ireland, Malachi O’Doherty meditates on the causes, burdens and benefits of reporting that break with communal beliefs. Leo Bogart looks at the need to maintain a healthy and honorable relationship between business and editorial interests at media organizations. John Owen considers the kinds of training that are necessary to ensure the safety of international reporters in dangerous situations. Looking at struggles for press freedom in West Africa, W. Joseph Campbell finds heroism that is not widely reported in the American press.
Finally, in “Review Essay,” James Boylan examines a history, an annual report, two memoirs and a feature film that offer varied perspectives on different aspects of the subject of courage in journalism: the courage to resist threats, the courage to tell people what they don’t want to hear and the courage to become a dissident inside an organization.