Why Journalists Risk Certain Death or Kidnapping

From the seizure of The New York Times's Stephen Farrell in Afghanistan last week to arrests of journalists like NEWSWEEK's Maziar Bahari, currently being held in Iran's Evin Prison, news organizations are grappling with how to balance exhaustive reporting with reporters' safety. Journalist and author Terry Gould—who once had police living in his house for six months while he investigated a story on the mafia in Vancouver—explores the deaths of six assassinated reporters worldwide in his book Marked by Death, which came out this month, and asks what makes reporters put themselves in harm's way. He helped explain "the psychology of sacrifice" to NEWSWEEK's David Graham. Excerpts:

You profile seven subjects in five countries. Were their deaths in vain, or did they make a difference?
The only true saint I found was a guy by the name of Manik Saha. He lived in a remote area of Bangladesh called Khulna, an area dominated by Bengal mafia that worked hand in hand with local jihadists and Maoist guerrillas. They logged a protected area called the Sundarbans, the last remainder of the Bengal rainforest and a preserve of the Bengal tiger. Because of Manik Saha's advocacy—he worked with National Geographic—the Sundarbans were set aside as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was warned, and he told some press-freedom people, "Any time I can be killed," and he was. They kill [reporters] in symbolic ways. He was coming out of the press club, with about 90 people inside, and they used this small bomb called a cocktail. They threw it at his head and it exploded his head, so he was lying there with his head blown off. It was a lesson to the press club people who came pouring out and who shared his manner of thinking. [Anna] Politkovskaya has achieved something in that the overwhelming amount of attention paid to the subject she was writing about, [which] has had some effect on the thinking of the current [Russian] president, [Dmitry] Medvedev.

Why them?
They really believed that their death would do some good. It has a certain coloring of martyrdom to it, and sometimes it's even specifically phrased that way. In the Philippines, Marlene Esperat had a religious revelation that, like Jesus, she would have to die for the extent of the corruption—that went up to the president's cabinet—to be known. She was consciously choosing to pursue this story in the face of certain death with the belief that it would inspire others to get their courage and save the town.

Following Stephen Farrell's rescue—and the death of his fixer, Sultan Munadi—George Packer wrote a blog post called " It's Always the Fixer Who Dies ." Is that true?
We call them fixers, but they're not really fixers; they're a whole bunch of things. They're guides, interpreters, protectors, and journalists all in one. They are the Tenzing Norgays to the Edmund Hillarys of the Western press in a cratered landscape. We accept the credo "No story is worth a life," but in the case of local journalists, they sometimes accept death as a consequence of their life, simply because they're standing up for their homes. We should be aware of that psychology of sacrifice when we hire them. What's crucial is we should also provide them with the protection when they go home that we provide ourselves. They often go home to bungalows where all that stands between them and murder is a quarter-inch plywood door. Everyone on the block knows where they've been and who they've been driving around with.

What about Westerners, who also put their lives on the line—if less frequently—and don't have a personal connection to their stories?
The way Westerners figure that out is, if it's one-in-three [chance of dying], maybe it's worth a chance. War correspondents are most driven by the story, getting the story, telling the story. They won't go one-in-one, because they know they're going to die and the story won't get out, whereas the local journalist will go one-in-one because they think their death will drive the story.

After the Farrell rescue, there are questions about whether it's worth it to cover dangerous stories. Is that a fair question to ask?
If I'm covering a war zone, I gotta do this. I can't just embed. If I embed, all I do is tell the story of these really brave 21-year-olds, but I don't get to see things through the eyes of the people whose towns we're rolling through. While I'm out there in my 1968 Datsun with my fixer, am I going to want to be rescued? Yes. Do I want someone to get killed rescuing me? No. But if there's a knife at my throat, I want them to try. I don't think this is something we should be smug about.

How do you interpret journalists like NEWSWEEK's Maziar Bahari, who combine Western upbringing with an interest in their country of origin?
They have a hybrid of Western sensibility of faith in institutions and law that they've learned in the West, mixed with knowledge of their countries. They want to see the workable Western institution of justice—they want to take that back with them to their country and apply it. Predators [who attack journalists] always react violently when journalists show that they're helping themselves, because they always claim they're helping the nation. And then these guys that have Western sensibilities and local blood come in and say, "This is not the way to run the system."