Sherry Ricchiardi in Sana'a, Yemen, 2004. / Frank S. Folwell
It's hideousness of almost unimaginable dimensions.
Twice in two weeks, journalists guilty of nothing more than doing their jobs have been executed, beheaded on video by terrorists.
Covering combat has by definition always been risky business. But as the nature of war has changed, it has become dangerous beyond measure.
The latest victim murdered by the Islamic State was 31-year-old Steven Sotloff, a Floridian with a passion for the Middle East and a love of basketball and the movies of David Lynch. Sotloff, who had been freelancing for Time magazine and other publications, was kidnapped in Syria in August 2013. Video of his beheading was posted Tuesday. Sotloff's mother pleaded last week for his release, to no avail.
Writer Sherry Ricchiardi has long had a love for international reporting, particularly in the world's hot zones. Ricchiardi, who reported on the fighting in the Balkans for a number of publications, covered the foreign news beat for two decades for American Journalism Review, a magazine I used to edit. In that capacity she has interviewed scores of front-line war correspondents,
Ricchiardi, a former Indiana University journalism professor who has conducted workshops for international journalists around the globe, is shaken by the barbarity of the last two weeks. "In my lifetime I've never seen anything like this, parading two American journalists in orange jumpsuits for the world to see," she says. The messy butchery of the beheadings, as opposed to the clean cut of the guillotine, makes the atrocities even more atrocious, in her view.
"I shuddered," Ricchiardi says. "I had a physical reaction."
And she worries about what comes next. The Committee to Protect Journalists says about 70 journalists have been killed in Syria since the uprising against strongman Bashar Assad began in 2011, and estimates about 20 are missing, many of them Syrians.
"How many journalists does the Islamic State have?" Ricchiardi wonders. "How many more are going to be kneeling in the desert?"
Ricchiardi says that covering warfare has become far more perilous than years ago, when conflicts were often between armies of rival nations and battle lines were clearly defined.
In many of today's intrastate conflicts, "There are no front lines; you don't know who the players are," she says.
In the past, journalists covering war weren't targets. "We certainly are now," Ricchiardi says. Terrorist groups see correspondents as pawns who are valuable for propaganda and fundraising. The Islamic State had been seeking a $132 million ransom for James Wright Foley, another American freelancer whose on-camera beheading was posted by the Islamic State on Aug. 19.
Given the good chance that bad things will happen to them, why do war correspondents continue to do what they do? Ricchiardi has discussed that with many of the best of them. She wrote profiles of The New York Times' Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin of London's Sunday Times, both of whom died covering Syria. She has interviewed, among many others, The New York Times' Carlotta Gall and The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins.
"Being an eyewitness is the bottom line," she says. "They often ask, 'If we don't do it, who will?' Bearing witness is a huge part of it, and going where others don't go to tell the stories of the people." She adds, "I never heard bravado."
Ricchiardi recalls interviewing Shadid in 2004 at his comfortable home in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The Pulitzer-winning journalist had dropped his 2-year-old off with a babysitter. He was about to head back to Iraq. Why would he leave such a pleasant existence to place his life at risk?
"No one can do this better than I can," replied Shadid, who spoke fluent Arabic. " No one is writing the stories with the voices of the Iraqi people. That is my mission."
As traditional news organizations have cut back on their rosters of foreign correspondents, many young freelancers have flocked to hot spots such as Syria. Will the recent carnage deter some of them?
"If this doesn't have a chilling effect, I don't know what will," Ricchiardi says. "Nobody in their right mind would cross over now into Syria."
Read the original story: Rieder: Why reporters risk lives in hot zones like Syria