The year of living dangerously revisited

multicoloured raindrops

September 11, 2005 marked the fourth anniversary of the shocking terrorism attacks in the US, an incredibly difficult and confronting assignment for any journalist covering the horrors as they unfolded in New York, Washington and Pittsburgh.

It was hard to imagine in the days and weeks after those awful events that one could find a tougher modern-day story to cover, particularly for local journalists from all media who had to deliver words and images of loved ones lost or maimed at the hands of extremists.

Yet this past year we have had a number of “mega” news stories that have pretty much eclipsed that dreadful assignment in different but chilling ways.

First there was the barbaric three-day Beslan siege by Chechen rebels who took the lives of 186 children and 145 adults at the town’s No. 1 school.

It began on September 1, the steamy first day of the Russian school year, and saw the world gripped by tension as the heavily armed perpetrators threatened to blow up nearly 1000 people imprisoned in the school’s gymnasium.

Then, in a bloody hail of weaponry, the exhausted and dehydrated captives were liberated in a dangerous mission that may have itself cost many lives.

The scenes were gut-wrenching and the stories that followed reached into the souls of those reporting as much as they did those watching it around the world.

While its eventual toll was but a tenth of that in the US terrorist attacks, hardly anyone could believe that children would be so deliberately targeted and so maliciously slaughtered.

Barely four months later, nature demonstrated its phenomenal power on December 26, producing an undersea earthquake off the north-western tip of Sumatra that measured nearly 9.2 on the Richter Scale and shook the ground for an unheard-of 10 minutes as it tore a 1200km rupture in the Sumatra-Andaman fault.

The deadly tentacles of the subsequent powerful tsunami reached out and claimed the lives of nearly 300,000 people across an enormous arc spanning southern Asia to eastern Africa – more than 100 times the reported September 11 toll.

Destruction was widespread, stories and images of loss and grief emerged from everywhere the waves had been.

Some journalists who had covered the earlier siege were despatched to provide words and images after the tsunami.

Like thousands of local and overseas news personnel, they walked amid the devastation, picked their way past distended or dismembered bodies and vainly attempted to shed the stench of death and decomposition from their clothes and equipment at the end of each day.

Just over six months later, in early July, thousands were injured and more than 50 people killed when terrorists attacked London’s underground system and an above-ground bus without warning.

Two months after that it was Hurricane Katrina that roared ashore, flattening the Gulf Coast region of the US, making large tracts uninhabitable, wiping out critical infrastructure, wracking up a damages bill that will be hard to beat and exposing embarrassing flaws in that country’s real ability to respond to a large-scale crisis.

Two weeks after Katrina touched down, her death toll was still not quantified, but it had exceeded 1000 bodies and continued to grow each day at the same time as the region found itself preparing for the prospect of a second major hurricane, Rita.

With the clean-up bills roughly equivalent to the daily cost of the first Gulf War, political, infrastructure and economic fallout, especially from Hurricane Katrina, may prove even greater.

Yet again, seasoned news personnel were there as the news broke, covering the fury of nature, the desperate plight of those immediately affected, the destruction wrought by subsequent inundation of low-lying areas and, in some instances, the woeful response by authorities.

Some journalists have put themselves in extremely dangerous positions in order to tell the world what was really going on. After Hurricane Katrina, one was shot through the open window of his car.

Certainly, for those journalists who come from within the immediate areas affected, the strain of covering this story will be greatest.

They most likely have lost their homes, belongings, cherished pets and in some cases even their workplaces. Their friends, colleagues or loved ones may have perished or, worse still, they may not yet know where they are.

Yet they still turn up for work and report on the tragedies and struggles unfolding around them while surviving with limited supplies, unreliable communication and in exceptionally trying, dangerous conditions in the field.

That is the nature of the journalist – to run towards danger rather than away from it – but at what cost?

Audiences, colleagues and news managers around the globe might pause to contemplate: How many of these journalists have covered all these “mega” news events and what ramifications might that have?

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This article written originally in September, 2005, by Trina McLellan

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