Before their deaths, most of us had never heard of Anthony Shadid, Marie Colvin or Remi Ochlik. But the manner of their passing as they reported on violence in Syria spread their names across traditional and digital media as the news community mourned the loss of its own. The compelling stories of each—a gifted writer, Arabic speaker and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner; a reporter who wore an eyepatch after a shrapnel injury she suffered while reporting in Sri Lanka; an award-winning photojournalist known for his war coverage —captured the imagination and sympathy of many who had not been paying much attention to the Syrian government’s increasingly bloody crackdown.
In typical Pomona College fashion, I was reading The New York Times print edition at breakfast and took in the front-page coverage of Shadid’s death (an asthma attack at 43) as well as Colvin’s and Ochlik’s (killed by government shelling as they covered the conflict). Syria is no exception to the “digital revolution,” with activists tweeting, Facebooking and uploading cellphone photos and videos of the regime’s brutality. Thus, I was not too surprised to read of an interview Shadid had done with Syrian activists hours before his death, nor of a homemade video taken soon after the shelling that killed Colvin and Ochlik in which the narrator gestures to their corpses. Yet I instinctively recoiled when I realized that in the picture in the paper before me, presumably a still from the video, I could make out the fallen journalists’ bodies. There was something so visceral, something counter to my sensibilities about actually seeing them dead among the dust and rubble.
Yet my reaction, when I thought about it, was also pretty twisted. Thousands of people have died since protests in Syria began last year, killed outright by government forces, cut off from medical attention, squeezed by food shortages. There are no multi-page spreads for them, no elegies for what they might yet have accomplished in their lives. When their bodies are on the front page of newspapers, we do not know their names or who survives them. There is something ironic in the fact that these journalists made it their life’s work and died in order to bring us the news of people in war zones whom the world may never know, only to have their deaths overshadow the stories they risked everything to tell.
It’s easy for us to identify with these journalists, especially because we see in them who we hope to be in 10 or 20 years: successful professionals pursuing their passion and excelling in their field, doing something of value in the world. It is not as easy for us to put ourselves in the place of Syrians fighting for their lives and a better future. But the greatest memorial we can enact for Anthony Shadid, Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik is to keep reading, keep watching and keep listening—to pay attention, to understand, maybe even to identify with the people they reported on. The people in the headlines are not just bodies, no more than these journalists were—and they deserve to be more than numbers.