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Journalists in Jeopardy

(AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Los Angeles Times reporter and columnist Patt Morrison has a column this morning entitled "His Story Won't Die" – which picked up the story of the murder of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey. For background on the case, check out Newsweek's story from a few weeks ago, or for a boiled down summary, here's how the Oakland Tribune reported the breaking news early this month:
In what police called a targeted killing, longtime Bay Area journalist Chauncey Bailey was ambushed and fatally shot Thursday morning at 14th and Alice streets in downtown as he walked to the Oakland Post, where he recently had been named editor.
Bailey had been investigating the possibly corrupt practices of Your Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland. The handyman of the bakery has already confessed to the killing.

Morrison makes the point that when you kill a journalist you're not just killing one individual – it's more an assault on a symbol. As she writes:

Killing a reporter is akin to killing a judge or a police officer. You're not just murdering the person, you're attacking the role: the robe, the badge, the notebook, the camera…

Reporters groups are organizing the same thing for Oakland and the bakery. So although you didn't hear a lot about Bailey's murder, you may, in the end, hear a lot more about his story. In death, Bailey might expose more corruption and malfeasance than he ever could have as just one guy with a notebook.

This isn't inside baseball or journalistic delusions of grandeur here. Killing a journalist – a symbol of justice and freedom – ends up attracting more attention to the story and raising the stakes. Now the bakery is under far more scrutiny than it ever would have been otherwise.

But those rules don't always apply, especially when a reporter is in the wrong country. Sometimes the symbolism works against them, which is the reason journalists are captured and killed around the planet. It's the reason why Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered. It's the reason why Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was abducted and kept for 82 days. The reasons for this go beyond the fact that reporters are representing press freedoms and acting as messengers to the population. The added attention that the media pays to murders or kidnappings of their own furthers one of the main goals of terrorists abroad – namely, to get in the heads of the population.

And this is the risk that many journalists accept as part of their vocation: that the story is bigger than them; that wrongdoing must be exposed and that digging deeper, while dangerous, is their way of contributing to society. And that's the aspect of journalism that gets lost in the cable shoutfests and reality TV shows.

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