This originally appeared in the Scotsman’s Scottish Perspective on Monday 20 February 2012
In the weeks before visiting Syria for the second time since the uprisings against dictator Bashar al-Assad began, New York Times Middle East correspondent Anthony Shadid e-mailed his editor. “It’s just nuts. I feel like no one there is telling the truth now,” he wrote. “We have to get the details.”
Mr Shadid, as ever, got the details, and was on his way out of the country last Thursday via the Turkish border when he suffered a fatal asthma attack, apparently brought on by his allergy to horses.
As an American citizen, Mr Shadid would been rushed to the nearest hospital at home, but instead his only aid came from photographer and colleague Tyler Hicks, who attempted to resuscitate him for 30 minutes and then carried his body over the border.
Shot in the shoulder in Ramallah, and held for days by Gaddafi’s goons in Libya, Mr Shadid was no stranger to conflict zones, but his death signifies something more than bravery.
What he epitomised is the exact opposite of what all young journalists are told is important. Mr Shadid was not distracted by Twitter (143 tweets in his lifetime) or shooting video, or his “personal brand”.
His qualities lay in his language skills, as a fluent speaker of Arabic, and his ability to listen. How else could he persuade a man forced to murder his own son in 2003 in Thuluya, Iraq, to talk at length about the experience?
In an age when web page views, retweets, and Facebook “Likes” have become the measure of a journalist’s worth, a quiet piece he wrote on Lebanon’s response to the Arab Spring last summer garnered little attention.
It wasn’t brash, or newsworthy, but simply explained why Lebanese protester Tony Daoud was demanding changes to restrictive laws regarding marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Mr Shadid wrote: “Daoud has been here every day since 18 March, but almost no one shouts or waves in support; horns are only honked in the direction of the valet parking across the street. ‘It’s not as simple as it looks on TV,’ he said as we sat in plastic chairs under a canvas umbrella.”
Where others would see a man in a chair with a sign, Shadid saw history: so many Lebanese are so tired of endless civil war that a fragile peace in a shaky democratic system is enough, for now.
That wouldn’t get you trending on Twitter, or rehashed for Mail Online, but for the people of that small country, constantly and unfairly dismissed as an unworkable, toxic mess, it must have brought solace.
That is not to say that new media and the power of the internet bring nothing to foreign reporting. For the last year, before reporters like Shadid grew tired of second-hand accounts of atrocities and entered the country illegally, hundreds of sickening images and videos have made their way on to YouTube and Twitter, documenting Assad’s crimes against his own people.
Some of this grim amateur footage has given an indication of atrocities, but until the international press pack snuck their way in, could we really say we understood what those snatched images of tanks, corpses and protests meant for Syria, and the Arab world as a whole?
New media can only ever work alongside, rather than replace, the core skills of bearing witness, listening and accurately reporting the truth.
Part of that is a language barrier – we need Syrians fluent in English or native English speakers reporting from Syria – but we also need emotional detachment and the ability to win the trust of those caught up in terrible situations – two qualities that Mr Shadid undoubtedly possessed.
One may recall a video circulating on Twitter last week of a child in Syria still alive with half his jaw blown off – this is the horror of war, no question, but it is not enough for us to watch and say “this is wrong”, retweet, and forget.
We need people like Anthony Shadid, especially in foreign reporting, more than ever. All the iPhones in the world won’t change that.