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Published Wednesday, June 7, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News


Some reporters risk all for war stories that must be told


THE ambush killing of two reporters in faraway Sierra Leone last month was a chilling but minor event for most readers, all the more obscure as both men toiled for the world's leading news agencies.

But for editors and publishers, particularly in the United States, it should be an alarm about the risks of the job and the need for professional training to reduce them. Some may farm out conflict coverage to ``stringers,'' free-lance reporters who work for a variety of news outlets. Others may seize on the occasion to retrench and reduce their coverage still more. That will be particularly regrettable because, at this time of change, definitive and consistent coverage of conflict is needed more than ever.

The near-anonymity of Kurt Schork, an American working for Reuters, and cameraman Miguel Gil Moreno de Moro, a Spaniard working for Associated Press television, belies the extent to which these relative newcomers helped define the journalism of conflict, and in so doing changed the world.

Their impact is due in part to the fact they were reporting the defining stories in a period of transition. Immediately after a major world upheaval, in this case the ending of the Cold War era, nothing is as it was and everything has to be redefined.

It is in conflict and in the responses to conflict that the American role in world affairs, the position of the United Nations, and the attitudes of the public have been determined.

Will the civilized world stand by and watch genocide unfold? When must the Western powers intervene? Should NATO expand its area of operation? The facts on the ground make a difference, and journalism, but most especially definitive journalism, based on assiduous documenting of the facts, sometimes takes on a higher profile than governments in setting the agenda.

And while Schork, who was 53, and Moreno, who was 21 years younger, did not have the high profiles of television and newspaper correspondents, they provided the facts that decision-makers and the general public need to determine how and when to react to disorder abroad.

The influence of Schork in particular, who ran the Reuters office in Sarajevo throughout the conflict in Bosnia, grew because he was quickly recognized by colleagues and by international and local officials as someone who had his facts right.

Moreno was the sole television cameraman to remain in Kosovo during NATO's air campaign and shot the famous footage of thousands of Kosovar Albanians being herded onto trains and deported, a haunting image that documented Serbia's crimes against humanity.

Both men came to journalism in the 1990s from other professions. Neither was a self-promoter, and neither did his work out of the hotel bar. Moreover, both were stringers at the time of their death, paid by contract. That did not lessen their devotion to their sense of mission, but probably heightened it.

Schork often told friends he did not want to be on staff, for it would tie him to a desk job and he wanted the freedom to choose his story. Reuters, to its credit, allowed the unusual arrangement. In newspaper ads after his death, the British-based international news agency saluted Schork as its most distinguished war correspondent. But, in fact, photojournalists and camera operators are generally free-lance, sometimes kept on a retainer but basically paid by the job.

Reporters of their qualities are in short supply, and one reason is that training for one of the world's most dangerous professions until recently has been largely on-the-job.

Over the past decade, two British firms staffed by former soldiers, Centurion and AKE Ltd., opened shop, offering five-day courses in surviving dangerous environments, including first aid, dealing with kidnappers, recognizing military activity and spotting booby traps. However, the principal clientele have been British news media and CNN. Schork had gone through the Centurion training course, and Moreno apparently had not.

No such course is offered in the United States. American journalism schools, with the exception of the University of California, Berkeley, and possibly one other, do not educate their students in covering conflict nor in the laws of war, which can help reporters spot war crimes when they see them. Except for Freedom Forum, whose London office director, John Owen, has consistently championed training for staff reporters and especially for free-lancers, major journalistic organizations have not taken up the issue.

Training alone would not have saved Schork and Moreno, although there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned.

Indeed, Centurion's director, Paul Rees, maintains that there is simply no escape from a well-planned ambush, and the miracle of the assault in Sierra Leone is that two other journalists, both Reuters personnel, survived by relying on basic survival skills. Training can save other reporters' lives in the future and also save the vital story of conflict from disappearing from view.

Roy Gutman is a Newsday Washington correspondent.

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