Reporter’s slaying reminds us why we need journalists

I feel like someone just punched me in the gut. Another beheading, another journalist, another son who will never come home. By now, we have all heard that Steven Sotloff, a reporter who has been held since 2013, was brutally murdered by ISIS on Tuesday. He had been reporting in Syria when he was kidnapped. Sotloff’s beheading follows the beheading of James Foley, another American reporter slain just two weeks ago. Journalists around the world are in mourning.

It’s becoming too familiar a scenario. Seventy journalists were killed last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 31 of them murdered. It’s a fate that could befall any one of my colleagues as they try to uncover the truth around the world.

I know many of you will inevitably ask why they do it. Why risk your life for your job? What you need to understand is that journalism is a calling. This is not a profession for someone with a passing interest in news. Journalists are passionate about bearing witness to atrocities. If we are not present, if we do not document what we witness, the world might never know about the horrors mankind is capable of.

But you don’t have to be in a war zone to get killed. Since 1992, Journalists covering politics were actually killed at a higher rate than journalists covering any other beat.

As I travel the world to train journalists, it is clear that not only reporters, but press freedom is under attack, even in established democracies. The United States fell 13 places to number 46 in the world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders. Often, freedom of information is sacrificed in the name of national security. As someone who covered the national security beat for more than a decade with CNN, I can tell you that I was often denied information that I later found on the Internet. Government officials were not protecting sensitive information, they just were not cooperating with the press. It’s a dangerous trend and one U.S. citizens should care about. Without transparency, little good can be accomplished.

I know that many Americans don’t think much of journalists. A Gallup survey shows that the public has as much respect for journalists as they do car salesmen with just 20 percent saying they had a favorable opinion of TV reporters. I think those folks might change their mind if they lived in a country without a free press. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in countries where press is restricted. Without a free press, there is no chance of true democracy, and without democracy, there is little chance human rights will be upheld.

Despite the lack of respect, despite the danger, despite low pay , despite horrible work schedules and intense stress, my fellow journalists are more determined than ever to cover important stories. I have colleagues who are currently covering the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the crisis in Libya, ISIS in Iraq, civil war in Syria, fighting in Ukraine and corruption in Mexico. Each of them is in danger but determined to be a voice for the voiceless.

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