An old friend from the Miami Herald emailed me a story about a Washington Post (and former Miami Herald) photojournalist who has died while covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. His name was Michel du Cille, and the story was written by another ex-Miami Herald reporter, author and one of du Cille's contemporaries, Joel Achenbach.
As I read what Achenbach wrote, I lost focus on my surroundings and fell face first into this story. I began to suspect that the story provided an answer to something that I have been trying to get my arms around for quite a while. That is, we - you and I - are on the verge of losing something vital because of all the changes in our traditional news reporting organizations and the environment in which it functions. The news mission, the resources dedicated to reporting the news, the standards upon which our news reporting has been based and, sadly, the demand for the news as we have known it, has changed. From this writer's perspective, the demand for news is under siege and in great peril.
I have always said that without the traditional news infrastructure, we would not have had the Watergate investigation. Nixon would not have resigned from office, and who knows what else would have (or have not) occurred with the butterfly effect.
But the more I read the story about du Cille, I began to realize that his story is one about a canary in a coal mine. This canary not only plays a major role in the lives of the miners - it warns them of danger and in some cases keeps them alive - but it is also a beautiful animal with radiant colors, flight and song. Not everything about the canary is a life-and-death issue; the canary is also about beauty and small things of life.
The state of journalism today is not too dissimilar to that of the canary in the mine. To a degree, both have fallen out of favor and have been replaced with alternatives. We're not going to see many more Michel du Cilles, because in part, the organizations that support people and efforts such as his are no longer willing to pay for it. In some cases, they can't pay for it. There is diminishing demand for what du Cille did. There is less trust, less empathy, less connection. And we are and will be so much diminished by this loss. Yes, we're still in the same mine, but the canary is not going to be there to protect or entertain us much longer unless something changes.
Michel du Cille won three Pulitzers for his photojournalism and died while reporting on Ebola in Liberia. He went where there was conflict, war, pain and human suffering and recorded that for us. We weren't there but he was, and he brought what he saw to us because we needed to see it. His Pulitzers were for his reporting on a natural disaster, crack houses in Miami and the plight of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital. But he also shot countless stories on small things and average people too. When questioned why he constantly risked his life in the Sudan, Afghanistan, Liberia and all the other war-torn zones around the world, his response was simply, "That is what I do." That is what he did, and we all are the better for it.
What I have never been able to write or describe is what we lose when we lose people like du Cille or the organizations that support people like him. The story that Achenbach wrote successfully conveys what I could not. Please take the time to read it. It's important. And if it changes your opinion of the "news" just a millimeter, that will be a great way to honor a man who deserves great honor - Michel du Cille. Follow this link to get to Achenbach's story in the Washington Post: http://wapo.st/1Gu5oxH, or just Google "Achenbach Michel du Cille."
Canary in a mine.
This is what we do.