The value of courage
By Maud Beelman
I was a war correspondent.
It sounds strange to say, so many years later and in a country where most people’s knowledge of war – despite Iraq and Afghanistan – is still framed by what they see in the movies. The effect this bit of my history has on people is pretty universal. First, I get “the look” that tells me they’re having trouble figuring out why a sane person, a woman no less, would do that for a living. And then: Weren’t you scared? You must be courageous.
More than a decade after leaving my battlefields, I still don’t know how to respond. I think that’s because, for me, courage in journalism has little to do with covering wars or disasters. I think it’s having the courage of your convictions to do what you think is right, regardless of the risk or consequences.
My initiation began in spring 1991, just after the first Gulf war ended. From along Iran’s border, and then inside Iraq, I tried to tell the story of Kurdish and Shiite civilians fleeing the post-bombing wrath of a still-powerful Saddam Hussein. Back in Europe a few months later, I drove from my home in Austria to Croatia as the former Yugoslavia exploded into factions unleashed by the end of the Cold War. I remember an Austrian border guard saying I must be either a diplomat or a journalist, because everyone else was headed in the opposite direction.
Telling the story of ordinary people impacted by extraordinary events always interested me most. But unlike those whose stories I strove to witness and retell, I could come and go pretty much at will. I was always amazed how, in less than an hour by plane, I could travel from what was surely the heart of darkness to the heart of European enchantment, Vienna. It always took longer for my mind to travel than my body.
Of course, there were times I was scared; anyone in her right mind would be. But courageous? No, the label didn’t fit. It was my job, and I always thought I was pretty lucky to be able to report from the front lines of the human condition.
The true tests of courage, of conviction, come quietly, unexpectedly, in often-mundane moments. Far from gunfire, far from war.
In the mid-1980s, I was based in State College, Pennsylvania. The locals called it “Happy Valley.” My beat was mostly writing features throughout the central region. But in the fall, my job as an Associated Press correspondent was covering Penn State football. One Saturday, I was working without backup when Penn State beat West Virginia. That meant I had to interview players on both teams after the game. Women in the locker room was a hotly debated issue back then, and Coach Joe Paterno had resolved it by banning all reporters from the area where his players showered and changed. Instead, he constructed an interview room where team members and reporters would meet later to go over the game. At the time, it was a fairly forward-thinking solution, especially for a college football program.
Since Penn State won, I headed for its players and coaches first. When I finished talking to them, I ran across the stadium to the West Virginia interview room, hoping to catch a few players before they boarded buses for home. I arrived just as a team official was wrapping up. There wasn’t a player in sight. You’re too late, he said, interviews are over. Just then, though, the door leading into the West Virginia locker room opened, and I glimpsed several of my male colleagues interviewing football players inside. I knew what I had to do, although the debate in my head seemed to rage in slow motion.
I really didn’t want to go into that locker room. I had no desire to be in a hot, stinky space with a bunch of young men wearing their towels like badges of honor if not glory. I suspected what might happen if I walked in, the lone woman in an all-male cast of sports reporters, angry athletes and frustrated coaches who wanted nothing more than to leave Happy Valley. But equal rights was still a point of debate, and I had as much a job to do as my male colleagues. I do not want to do this, I remember thinking, as I took a deep breath. Then I opened the door and walked in.
Everything that I expected to happen did. Towels and curses flew through the air and, within minutes, I and all of my male colleagues were thrown out of the locker room. But there was an unexpected twist. My fellow reporters, the guys with whom I’d covered many games, were furious at me. They blamed me for ruining their interviews; they said I was a troublemaker. It was the first time, I think, I fully understood that having the courage of your convictions comes with consequences.
Courage plays out in other ways in the newsroom.
Going against the accepted narrative, or the pack mentality of reporters, can be a risky move, especially on a competitive story. So can pursuing the story no one else believes in, or following your moral, ethical compass even if that conflicts with the plan. There is courage in engaging colleagues and bosses in uncomfortable conversations on difficult subjects. There is bravery in being vocal when it would be easier to keep quiet and what’s at stake may be your story, your standing or, maybe, even your career.
The struggle over this personal and professional value occurs in downtown newsrooms, far- flung bureaus and home offices wherever journalists work. It is often an internal debate because of the questions that arise. Indeed, this may be courage with a small “c.” But it is the type of everyday conviction that still matters.
Is this a noble enough cause? Does it seem pompous to complain? Who wants to carry the burden of the troublemaker? Who doesn’t want to be thought of as a loyal employee, a fun boss, an easy colleague? How risky – ungrateful even – can this be at a time when good journalism jobs are so scarce? Maybe it’s just me, being undisciplined and unprofessional, when I should be quiet or do nothing.
These are individual questions, but similar ones confront media organizations. Where there are tests of individual courage, there are also tests of institutional courage.
Like so many other journalists, my latest challenge is tied to our profession’s economic woes, which complicate so many of the decisions we used to make on purely journalistic grounds. As we all seek a new economic model to sustain the reporters, editors, photographers and others involved in telling important, complicated stories, we are all trying new things. We’re even breaking with trusted journalistic conventions, such as the church-and-state separation between news and advertising sales departments. My paper – which has supported one of the largest investigative and enterprise teams in the country despite years of budget cutbacks and staff reductions – is trying one of these new models. We’ve appointed general managers to lead some newsroom departments, whose senior editors now report to them. Their mandate is to find new ways of appealing to “consumers” and, thereby, advertisers.
There are so many things about this new model that test the courage of my convictions. I mourn the loss of “reader” and “news” even as I suspect doing so makes me a dinosaur. Yet I know we are wading through uncharted waters, that some even suggest the death of journalism as we’ve known it is near. And then there’s the sense of loyalty I feel to those who have supported my work for so long, the same people who now mandate allegiance to this new vision.
It is a different battlefield, a long way from the dangers and hostilities of foreign wars. But there remains a climate of fear among some and a bunker mentality in this media upheaval. What may be needed is to find a little courage in all of us.
Maud Beelman’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.