top of page

Armed Journalists: Perception vs. Protection

With Daesh's violence against civilian contractors and journalists continuing unchecked, the question of whether reporters in the region should take their safety into their own hands and carry a weapon has been brought up more than once. Here's the problem: If journalists are armed, how do others discern between them being part of the press and being an active participant in the war?

The Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics includes the phrase "minimize harm" as a primary facet of their directive, and journalists are historically known for being neutral observers (which is why they're often allowed to travel freely between warring parties or are given access to violent people without being accosted). You slap a 1911 on a journalist's belt, and suddenly their intentions are cast into doubt, even if their motive is purely self defense.

Now, I'm a major advocate for self defense and firearms ownership, and I'm fully aware that jihadists the likes of Daesh don't care if you're a neutral observer or not; if you're not their brand of crazy, you're a target. But I also recognize the importance a reporter's image and the long-held notion of journalistic neutrality. That is, perhaps, why this question is so difficult to answer, and so relevant.

Historically, as long as warring parties respected the neutrality of the press and their noncombatant status, it was clearly to the reporter's advantage to disassociate themselves from those doing the fighting. If that paradigm is no longer in place, then being an unarmed observer offers little advantage. In simpler terms, if you're going to be treated the same regardless of whether or not you have a gun on you, why not carry one?

But it's seldom as simple as what's most practical. The journalism community has long frowned upon its members carrying guns. Dan Rathers allegedly carried a handgun while reporting from the field in Afghanistan back in the 1980s, and it earned him the moniker "Gunga Dan" from his fellow reporters and no small amount of ridicule and scorn—painting him as something of an overwrought try-hard.

When Matthew VanDyke (above), an American who had worked as an embedded news correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq, joined the Libyan revolution as an infantryman, there was some confusion within the journalism community as to whether he was there as a reporter or as a soldier.

When VanDyke was captured, there was an outpouring of support from NGOs, and he was mistakenly labeled a freelance journalist. When it was later discovered that he'd been an active participant in the war from the beginning—and he argues vehemently that he never called himself a journalist during his time in the country—some in the journalism community were outraged, arguing that VanDyke was violating the role of journalists in war zones, or at the very least, clouding the world's perception of journalists.

In this case, a man who wasn't even working as a journalist when he picked up a rifle became a pariah just because he had been connected to the journalism community in the past.

I feel the title of neutral observer should have less to do with whether or not a journalist carries a gun, and more to do with their actions. I don't believe that the act of carrying a gun for self defense suddenly makes a journalist a biased participant, though frankly, a handgun isn't going to save a journalist from a squad of RPG-toting religious fanatics anyway.

bottom of page