Remarks by ABC News President David Weston at the Journalists Memorial rededication ceremony, May 3, 2006
Reinhold Niebuhr, the American moral philosopher and theologian, taught that, of all creatures, only man can contemplate his own death. According to Niebuhr, that contemplation of death leads us all to search for meaning in our lives.
We gather here today to honor 59 men and women from around the world who lost their lives in the cause of gathering and reporting the news this past year. In their sacrifice, they gave meaning not only to their own lives, but to the lives of all of us who report the news.
They came from 21 countries. Thirty-one reported for the print media. Twenty-eight reported for broadcast media. Of the 59, just over a third lost their lives in Iraq. The vast majority were murdered specifically because they were journalists.
They came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Each of these 59 men and women had his or her own loves and passions and kindnesses and struggles and idiosyncrasies, known now only to the loved ones they have left behind. Each had his own reasons for being where he was and doing what he was doing when his life was taken from him.
But for all their differences, those we honor today also shared a great deal. None sought to give his life at this time, in this place, in this way. Yet no doubt all knew something of the risks that they were taking.
Most important, these 59 are joined together in the reason they are no longer with us: All died because they were seeking truth on behalf of us all. They stepped forward to learn the things that they believed we should know, to see for themselves what was going on in some place or some circumstance that the rest of us couldn’t reach, to report back to us so that we all could live better lives as individuals and as citizens.
These 59 were not alone in pursuing truth even in the face of adversity and risk. So many of our colleagues have taken similar risks — indeed, are taking those risks even as we meet today — in reporting the news. Some of them, like ABC News’ own Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt, have been badly injured in the process. Many others bring back from their assignments emotional trauma that will live on with them.
The 59 are joined as well by their families and the families of all of our colleagues who put themselves in danger to report the news. These are people who sacrifice, not because journalism is their own cause, but because they love someone whose cause it is. Through their support and their understanding, they bear too much of the burden and get too little recognition.
Adding the names of these 59 people to the 1,700 who came before them is a tangible and important gesture of remembrance. But even more important is what we do day in and day out to honor what they have done — to recognize the meaning of why their lives were taken from them.
Sadly, there is no end in sight for the loss of life and the injuries suffered by journalists around the world. In Iraq alone, we have now lost 74 journalists in a conflict that is only three years old. But, as shocking as that number is, our tribute today reminds us that even now the majority of journalists killed in the line of duty are working far outside Iraq, in places as widely dispersed as the Philippines and Russia and Colombia.
- In Bangladesh, a reporter for a local daily newspaper was killed in a bomb attack by a Maoist group that said it had more journalists in its sites.
- In Haiti, an American radio reporter was shot dead by the police after they saw that he had witnessed the police killing three young people during a raid.
- In Mexico, an experienced crime reporter for a local radio station was shot nine times as she parked her car at the station, soon after she had broadcast a report on the killing of a local defense lawyer.
- And in the Philippines, the editor and publisher of a local weekly newspaper was shot in the back of the head at his daughter’s house as he sat down to dinner. He was killed the day before his newspaper put out a special edition revealing local corruption including links of the mayor to missing government funds.
One way we honor the meaning of our colleagues’ lives and deaths is by telling their stories, stories such as these. Too often we forget the basics of journalism. We who spend too much of our time worrying about our professional success, our competition, our business, and simply the grind of daily news coverage lose sight of what so very many of our colleagues are doing every day around the world. They go out, they get the news, and they report it, whether it’s wrongdoing by the government or the activities of terrorists or criminals or just plain petty corruption. And, in reporting that news, they often put their very lives at risk.
Another way that we honor the meaning of our colleagues’ lives and deaths is by providing for those they have left behind — their husbands and wives and children and fathers and mothers. We owe it to our colleagues to remember their families and to do everything in our power to give them comfort in their sorrow and to support them as they face an uncertain future.
We also honor the meaning of our colleagues’ lives and deaths by doing all that we can to protect those who step into their shoes. For some, this means providing the training and equipment needed to protect their bodies and their lives.
And this includes not only the staff reporter that we send from a broadcast network or major newspaper to a war zone, but also the local freelancer whom we retain on location. The local freelancer puts his or her life on the line in the cause of reporting the news no less than does the permanent American employee.
The protection we provide cannot be limited to training and equipment. As we are seeing in Iraq today and as we have seen in other conflicts and tragedies, those who cover the news are sometimes exposed to horrific scenes that the rest of us cannot fully imagine. And, often they are required to remain for extended periods observing these scenes and living among those most devastated by the story being reported.
Journalists are notoriously proud of their strength and their ability to put emotion to one side. We need to provide counseling and therapy to those who have been exposed to such trauma in reporting the news. We need to help one another get across the artificial distance we put between ourselves and our emotions and help heal the ongoing psychological trauma that journalists can suffer well after the events that they cover are over.
We also must seek to protect our colleagues by bringing to light the failure of governments to pursue aggressively those who murder reporters. There are too many governments around the world today who turn a blind eye to revenge taken on journalists. And this puts to one side the governments who are themselves the perpetrators or are complicit in the murders committed. We need to do all that we can through international organizations, through our own government, and through our continued reporting to keep the spotlight and the pressure on the governments at fault.
We honor the meaning of our colleagues’ lives and deaths by sending others to take their place. This may seem incongruous, that we would put others in harm’s way despite the proven danger. And any assignment that involves danger requires careful consideration by all — the management, the editors, and most important, the reporter. At ABC News, as at other major news organizations, all hazardous assignments are kept strictly voluntary. Those who cover the news in dangerous situations do it because they want to, not because we put any pressure on them to do so.
We never, ever want anyone to lose his life in reporting the news. But the simple, harsh fact is that there are stories so important that journalists volunteer to take the risk on behalf of all of us. That is what the 59 people we honor here today have shown us.
The worst thing that we could do in remembering the colleagues we’ve lost would be to pull back on our news coverage and fail to cover important stories because there is risk involved. To do so would deny the very meaning that those who have gone before have shown us in the most powerful way that they can.
And, finally, we honor the meaning of our colleagues’ lives and deaths by taking to heart every day what they have shown us about the importance of reporting the news. They believed that the good of their country, their community and their fellow citizens depends on people knowing as much of the truth as they could find and report. In the vast majority of the 59 cases represented today, this was truth that someone wanted badly never to come to light.
Most of us in journalism will never come face to face with what these 59 brave men and women confronted. We will not have to put our lives on the line in support of our belief that reporting the news is the very foundation of true security and the general welfare of the people.
But, we are confronted daily with those in power who deny this core belief. Too often we hear these days from governments — our own and others — that a stable and secure future depends much more on what the people are not told than on what they are told. Many insist it is better that people know less, rather than more, and some of these people are no doubt well-intentioned.
But the 59 journalists we honor today knew better. They knew that the people are best served and most secure when they know more — more about what is going on around them, more about abuses of power and position, and more about what governments are doing. This is the central meaning that these fine men and women revealed by giving up their lives in reporting the news. It remains for us who are left behind to embrace that meaning and carry it forward, every day gathering the news and reporting the news even when there are those in power who would have us keep quiet.