International journalist discusses terrorist groups’ impact on foreign reporting

International journalist Ilene Prusher. // Courtesy of UM Media
International journalist Ilene Prusher. // Courtesy of UM Media
International journalist Ilene Prusher. // Courtesy of UM Media

Journalist and author Ilene Prusher discussed the violent targeting of journalists by terrorist groups in the Middle East and Southwest Asia with a packed audience Wednesday night at the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies.

Prusher covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for The Christian Science Monitor from 2000 to 2010, and from January 2011 to mid-2012, she edited content for the Middle East Report magazine. During this time, Prusher frequently edited the work of Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist from South Florida who was executed by ISIL this September at age 31.

“Stephen and other journalists like him were doing exactly the same type of reporting I had been doing for a good part of my 20 year career in journalism,” Prusher told the audience. “I could’ve been in their shoes. I’m not smarter or savvier than they were. You could say, as my friend told me once, its just dumb luck.”

When first asked by her editors to go to Iraq to cover the war, Prusher said it was the first time in her career she had been hesitant. But her career had brought her to this point, and she explained that she, as with other journalists who take the risk to cover conflict zones, felt a greater calling.

“Somewhere along the line I came to feel a sense of mission as a journalist,” Prusher explained. “The point was to expose a truth, sometimes an ugly truth; what my commencement speaker at Columbia Graduate School called ‘shining a light in dark corners.’”

School of Communication professors Joseph Treaster and Tsitsi Wakhisi, who joined Prusher for an open discussion after she spoke, mentioned that they didn’t feel the same threat of targeted violence during their time covering foreign conflicts.

“It hasn’t always been like that in wars. … As reporters in Salvador we felt we had a sort of protective immunity,” said Treaster, who covered the violent Salvadoran Civil War.

Prusher explained that as foreign correspondents in conflict zones, no amount of training, research or preparation can ensure your safety.

“Sometimes you think you’re on to something that no one else has, but that means you’re working alone and taking more risks. We ultimately put our faith in humanity; we hope that across language and cultural barriers they will understand we are there as truth seekers,” Prusher said. “Humanity failed us when these journalists were killed.”

Sadly, Prusher believes terrorist organizations such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda do not understand that journalists are meant to act as a messenger for both sides.

“They realize the symbol and power of media in the West; they almost view it as an extension of U.S. foreign policy,” Prusher explained. “And they then see it as something they can use as a tool.”

The speakers all agreed that this could affect the reporting of journalists; some might not be willing to expose as much in their reports if it puts them in greater danger.

During her speech and the following discussion, Prusher addressed the students in the audience, and warned them of the challenges that would lie ahead.

“It’s you who will face the real challenges of the next generation. Professors and future editors…you will have to help them navigate a changing profession that literally and figuratively has become a minefield,” Prusher said. “Everywhere you go in the world, everyone other than the journalists wants to control the story. Our job is to the push the envelope to the point that you’re not risking your life. It’s getting harder and more dangerous to shed light in dark corners, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.”