It isn’t often that Canadian journalists die in the line of duty, at home or abroad. That fact alone makes the death yesterday of 34-year-old Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang remarkable. She was killed alongside four Canadian Forces soldiers as their armoured vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. The Taliban have claimed responsibility.
Lang’s untimely death has hit journalists hard — not because her life was somehow more important than the soldiers who died with her, but because the Canadian journalistic community is, despite appearances, a relatively small one. There are few among us who do not personally know someone who has been to Afghanistan to report on Canada’s mission there. Lang was the first to die doing it.
I did not personally know Lang. Over the past day, tributes from those who were well acquainted with her have been posted; they come from across the country and overseas. There is the account of Globe and Mail reporters Patrick White (on the ground in Afghanistan) and Anna Mehler Paperny on Lang’s career, spirit and courage. There is the column by Windsor Star reporter Craig Pearson on the loss of a journalistic comrade. There is the account of Emmy Award-winning reporter Graeme Smith, also of the Globe and Mail, on the fear journalists confront while working in a war zone. There is a blog post by U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson, one of the last people to be interviewed by Lang. There are statements of regret and condolence by many journalistic organizations, including Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. There is a tribute by Canwest News Service columnist Don Martin.
Dozens of Canadian journalists have, over the past six years, volunteered for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Many do more than volunteer — they actively lobby their managers, syndicates and networks for the opportunity to go. Still others see the chance to work in a war zone, even for a short period of time, as a way to burnish their professional credentials and hone their abilities. All, however, are driven by the desire to tell the story of what Canada is doing in such a remote part of the world — and whether, through military action or humanitarian intervention, we’re making a positive difference there.
We owe a debt to Lang — for modelling journalistic integrity and excellence; for being brave enough to risk her life for the sake of understanding and clarity; and for reminding us that journalistic zeal and passion are no antidote against the deadly, ugly realities of armed conflict.