Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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A History of Fallen Photojournalists: Stories About Risk, Daring, and the Hero Myth
Raymond McCaffrey

Last modified: 2017-11-25


This historical case study explored the existence of a hero mythology that might relate to photojournalists who have died in the line of duty. The study also sought to determine if such a mythology supports a so-called macho culture that encourages journalists in general to take risks on the job and shrug off the psychological impact of their work.

This study used qualitative methods to analyze New York Times stories about U.S. journalists who died from 1854 to 2016 and whose names appeared on the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Overall, 71 of the 373 U.S. fallen journalists were photographers. The New York Times wrote about 82 percent of the 58 photojournalists who died on foreign assignment compared to coverage of 31 percent of the 13 who died stateside. About 21 percent of those who died on foreign soil were depicted in heroic terms by the New York Times compared to none who died in the U.S.

The stories that invoked themes found in classic hero myths largely involved combat photographers who were seen as giving their lives in service to greater journalistic values, such as bearing witness and pursuing the truth. These stories also espoused qualities typically not found in journalistic codes, such as courage and a type of stoicism that went behind mere objectivity and involved ignoring the personal consequences of dangerous assignments.

This study also determined that the hero mythology surrounding fallen journalists began to appear in New York Times stories during the 1920s, at the same time U.S. journalism was in the midst of a professionalization movement that involved the enactment of professional ethics codes. The first photographer to be depicted in heroic terms was Bradish Johnson Jr., on assignment for Newsweek, who died in 1937 when his car was shelled while he was covering the civil war in Spain. However, that hero mythology surrounding fallen combat photographers really took root in 1954 when Robert Capa, of Life, became the first U.S. journalist to die in Vietnam when he stepped on a land mine while covering the French Indochina War. Capa embodied the qualities associated with the archetypal heroic combat photographer. His daring and inclination to take risks were supported by his most famous saying, which was repeated again and again by the New York Times through the years: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

That ethos was reinforced in stories during the Vietnam War, when 21 photojournalists were killed covering combat. That propensity for risk taking was embodied by freelance photographer Bill Biggart, who became the only journalist to die while covering the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 when he was buried beneath the north tower of the World Trade Center when it collapsed. The post 9/11-era saw a resurgence of the hero myth in stories about photographers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite research that questioned whether a macho code discouraged journalists from seeking treatment for occupational mental health risks such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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