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Adrian Walker

Powerless to stop a nightmare

Charlie Sennott has had the week every editor prays never to have. He spent it mourning one of his own, the slain war correspondent James Foley.

Sennott is the co-founder of GlobalPost, the Boston-based foreign news service. And Foley was a fearless, dedicated, and ultimately doomed reporter who was beheaded by the Islamic State terrorist group, after nearly two years in captivity.

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Many of us have been moved by the public appearances of Foley’s family in New Hampshire. Sennott has a personal perspective on their remarkable courage.

“Their faith is so amazing,” Sennott said. “Their strength is about the only light that pours through the darkness of this. They’re people of faith, and they had faith in their son and what he did. They understood that he wanted to do work that mattered.”

Before helping to launch GlobalPost, Sennott had a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent at the Globe. He spent years covering some of the worlds's most dangerous conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11.

But even those experiences didn’t prepare him for the shock of losing a reporter. It is, beyond comparison, the worst experience an editor can have.

And Sennott has watched with increasing dismay as the always-dangerous field of foreign reporting has gotten ever more perilous. He ticks off the names of fallen comrades: Marie Colvin, Tim Hetherington, and Anthony Shadid, our former Globe colleague who died on assignment for the New York Times.

The prospect of reporters being held for ransom — as Foley was — has clearly upped the ante. The United States and the United Kingdom refuse to pay ransom to terrorist groups, but other countries have.

“We have to sit down and think this through as a world,” Sennott said. “It is a global concern, and it imperils so many people — not only journalists but also executives who work in dangerous places.’’

As Foley’s captivity went on, there was always hope of a miracle — perhaps in the form of a raid by Navy SEALs. But by the time the Islamic State emerged as a major military concern for the United States, those faint hopes receded, replaced by something darker.

“In the days before the video we were feeling a great sense of dread, and our worst ever nightmare was confirmed,” Sennott said.

A key question now is how to make it safer for journalists to cover dangerous conflicts. A couple of years ago Sennott launched the GroundTruth Project, to teach foreign correspondents — who have varying degrees of experience — how to operate safely. That project has now become part of his healing process.

“We now feel stronger than ever about how to train and mentor the next generation,” Sennott said. “This is really sacred to me. We need to build a community of people who want to do the work that matters, but train them on how to do this safely.”

Foreign correspondents — especially war reporters — are a special breed, people who march into places that most people would flee. They don’t do it for fame or glory. It offers little of either. People like Foley risk their lives in pursuit of stories the world needs to see and read. It’s a calling, as opposed to a career.

Sennott noted, with awe, that Foley’s parents said they were never more proud of their son than when he made the ultimate sacrifice, telling the story of Syria’s people.

“It takes an amazing spirit to say that,” Sennott said. “It’s such a contrast between the great light that was James Foley and the darkness that took his life.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.
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