It has been said that everyone likes to make fun of lawyers – until they need one. The same might be said for another group of oft-criticized professionals: journalists. And in a world where information is available from so many sources at rapid-fire intervals, it is tempting to think that that need has diminished. But then comes a tragedy like the downing of Malaysia Air Flight MH17, under almost unprecedented circumstances, and the skill and courage of journalists are placed front and center.
There was no clear central authority providing information in Eastern Ukraine where Flight MH17 crashed. There was no public information officer for any local or central government who opened a command post to communicate details desperately needed, particularly by the families of those lost in the crash, but also by a world deeply affected by the tension of East–West relations.
Those professionals whose boots were on the ground reminded us that reporters can make a vital difference.
It was journalists who used all of the tools of their trade to gain access to sites and sources of information, in a place that bordered on lawlessness, if not outright achieved it. It was journalists who sifted through the haze of misinformation and produced such important revelations as the photos by Noah Sneider and Sabrina Tavernise showing marks on the fragments of the 777 consistent with a missile strike. Let's not forget that even before the crash of MH17, more journalists had perished in Ukraine than in any other country in the world in the first six months of 2014. This was not easy reporting. Yes, there were moments of inexplicable insensitivity on the part of several journalists, but these were the exception, not the rule.
The amount of information needed could not be fit into short, declarative phrases. It needed context and depth. And it is due to the efforts of journalists that information did come out that was of extraordinary value to the families of victims as well as to international leaders vested with the responsibility of handling the consequences of this horrific event. It is testament to the exceptional journalism involved that the spin that any particular political interest could place on the event was put in some degree of check.
This is not to suggest that social media did not have its role in this tragedy. Family members were able to express their outrage and desperation in various forms of social media. International leaders such as British Prime Minister David Cameron took to Twitter to relay the substance of a conversation he had with Vladimir Putin. But those professionals whose boots were on the ground reminded us that reporters can make a vital difference. The skills that allowed them to do so need to be taught, honed, valued and preserved.