'Lyra' sheds light on power, dangers of journalism - Salish Current
July 14, 2023
‘Lyra’ sheds light on power, dangers of journalism
Matt Benoit

Director Alison Millar hopes audiences find the story of Northern Ireland journalist Lyra McKee (left), who was killed while covering a story, inspiring and energizing toward pursuit of their own dreams. (Courtesy Jess Lowe Photography)

July 14, 2023
‘Lyra’ sheds light on power, dangers of journalism
Matt Benoit


Journalists show up to witness and tell stories, not to become them. But journalists even in this corner of the world have seen that change with hostility and even violence at times.

Lyra,” a  powerful film showing on Tuesday July, 18, at 5:30 p.m., at Bellingham’s Pickford Film Center, documents the story of murdered Northern Ireland journalist Lyra McKee. The showing is sponsored by the Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival.

McKee — who at age 29 was just hitting her stride as an investigative freelance journalist, author and queer activist — was shot in the head while covering a riot in Derry in 2019. 

Directed by British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA)-winning filmmaker Alison Millar, “Lyra” received the Tim Hetherington Award at England’s Sheffield DocFest — a tribute to the humanitarian and conflict reporting of the late British photojournalist killed in Libya in 2011.

That attack in the Libyan city of Misrata also nearly killed Michael Christopher Brown, a Western Washington University (WWU) graduate and Skagit County native. [Brown details his year covering the revolution in “Lybian Sugar” (Twin Palms Publishing, 2016).]

 “Lyra” not only speaks to the continuing fallout of Northern Ireland’s generations of sectarian violence and its 1998 peace agreement, but also illuminates the power of journalism and the often-dangerous nature of reporting amid violent circumstances. 

Not only are war zones and riots inherently dangerous, but increasingly, journalists are being targeted to stifle their reporting. Currently the most dangerous country for journalists in the Western Hemisphere is Mexico, where more than a dozen reporters were killed in 2022. 

While journalists in the United States have not been targeted for injury or assassination on that level, the experiences of both local and national journalists demonstrate the inherent risks of reporting on everything from social justice demonstrations to mass shootings. 

Dangerous times

The Civil Rights movement was a particularly dangerous time for journalists, says WWU professor John Harris. 

“In terms of danger in riots … that is kind of the touchstone,” said Harris, who teaches both an honors seminar on war photography and a U.S. journalism history course. 

Paul Guihard, a 30-year-old French-British journalist working for Agence France-Press, was shot and killed during a September 1962 riot at the University of Mississippi, which resulted from protests over the attempted admittance of James Meredith, a black student, to the university. His killer was never identified. 

“At that same riot, the television cameras would turn on their lights in order to photograph at night, but then they’d have to turn them on and off quickly because when their light came on, that was basically a target for sharpshooters,” Harris said, adding that CBS News correspondent Dan Rather saw a sign there that read, “no dogs, no [racial slur], no reporters.”

Many more journalists were injured during the Civil Rights movement, including NBC’s Richard Valeriani, who was clubbed in the head with an ax handle during a 1965 demonstration in Alabama. A photo taken afterward shows a bandaged Valeriani in the hospital, continuing to file his story on a typewriter. 

In 1957, during the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Harris said, an African-American reporter was beaten and knocked to the ground. 

More recently and locally, riots at or near Washington State University (1998), Seattle’s World Trade Organization conference (1999), WWU (2013) and Seattle’s George Floyd and CHOP (Capitol Hill Occupied Protest) demonstrations in 2020 put both student journalists and career reporters in close contact with potentially dangerous situations. 


Julia Lerner, 26, an environmental reporter for Bellingham’s Cascadia Daily News, has been in the middle of demonstrations where she feared for her safety. 

Lerner completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, where its proximity to Washington, D.C.,  gave her plenty of student and internship experience covering protests and demonstrations that ranged from the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March to the Juggalo March

After she finished her graduate degree, the COVID-19 pandemic sent Lerner to stay with her parents in Columbus, Ohio. When demonstrations over the death of George Floyd erupted across the country, Lerner was covering how things unfolded in her hometown.  

“I had never been in a situation where there are police in riot gear, targeting me and people with press badges,” she said. “The police didn’t know who was who, and when it’s dark and there are windows exploding all around you, there’s no way to tell.”

Although Lerner had proper identification and multiple press credentials, it didn’t prevent a particularly disturbing incident she had with a police officer. 

On her first night of covering demonstrations with her camera, Lerner found herself walking with demonstrators down one of Columbus’ main arterials. Late that night as she headed back to her car alone, she was approached by a police officer who began yelling. “I put my hands up immediately and started yelling, ‘I’m a journalist!’ and he pepper-sprayed me,” Lerner said. 

She tried running away, but the officer followed her for several more blocks and sprayed her three more times. The pepper spray covered her arms, her back, and left her feeling awful for several days. 

“It was really scary,” she said. “There are some days where it’s scary to be a journalist.”

The cost of trauma

Although Harris said he doesn’t worry greatly about his students being in danger one day, even if they do embark on a career in conflict photography, he does talk about how to properly deal with sources who’ve experienced trauma and, in return, how that can create trauma of its own for the journalist.

Harris worked as a police reporter for The Spokesman-Review when South Hill Rapist Kevin Coe terrorized Spokane in the early 1980s. After leaving the paper, Harris conducted reporting research for author Jack Olsen, whose book on Coe, “Son: A Psychopath and his Victims,” became a bestseller. Harris’ research included interviewing dozens of women who’d been raped. 

“That takes an emotional toll on you as a reporter,” he said.

Harris reminds his students to mind their mental health when covering traumatic events. He hopes that their approach to processing trauma is better than it was during his time as a reporter.

“In the old days, you go cover a plane crash,” Harris said. “It (is) so horrible, and you just go home and you get drunk. You don’t talk about it. But people are talking about (processing trauma) a lot more now than they used to in the past, which is wonderful. They’re more mindful of the toll that it exacts on journalists.”

Recognizing today’s risks, the ACOS Alliance is among organizations providing safety guidance for journalists and news organizations.

Losing a friend, gaining perspective

Director Alison Millar met Lyra McKee soon after the teenager won the prestigious Sky Young Journalist award at age 16, for reportage she’d done on the rise in suicides in North Belfast following the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Over the next roughly 12 years, the two forged a relationship as creative colleagues and friends. 

“It was a lovely relationship that we had,” Millar said in a recent Zoom interview.

Millar was devastated by the loss of McKee, who was due to have lasagna dinner — her favorite dish — at Millar’s house the night after she was killed. 

Several weeks after her death, McKee’s family approached Millar about the possibility of a documentary. Though initially reluctant, Millar set her grief on hold and got to work, assembling a both intimate and professional portrait of McKee in which, through numerous voice recordings, the late journalist narrates much of her own story. 

Millar said she was immensely honored to receive the Hetherington Award for the film. The award was presented to her by Hetherington’s mother, and Millar said she saw in her eyes the same pain of loss she observed in the eyes of McKee’s loved ones.

Given the murder of journalists abroad, the continuing vacuum of a collapsed  government in Northern Ireland, and continuing political and social tensions in the United States, Millar worries about the continued support of quality journalism at-large.

Serving the truth

“Independent story-telling and small newspapers … are key to truth,” she said. “If we don’t have those people supporter-funded in this world, we don’t have that (truth).”

Lerner agrees. Her experience being pepper-sprayed, she said, actually reignited her passion and commitment to journalism. 

“It’s our responsibility to make sure people know what’s happening,” she said. “It reminded me: there are stories everywhere. Going through that, it really just put into perspective the dire need for journalists in our community. There need to be more trained journalists, ready to tell stories.”

Lerner also hopes more people realize that local journalists are genuinely present in areas they cover. Recently, an upset reader who called the CDN newsroom was surprised that Lerner lived in Whatcom County.

“I think there’s this notion that journalists aren’t actually part of communities,” she said. “Like, we kind of stay on the outside, on the periphery, or we’re in Miami somewhere, picking up police blotters and stuff. There’s this notion that we don’t care. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Although some American audiences may find it tough to relate to the conflicts of Northern Ireland, Millar wants those who see “Lyra” to leave the film inspired by how amazing a person McKee was, and to be empowered to achieve their dreams. 

 “She’s a great inspiration for young people,” Millar said. “The message, for me, at the end of the film isn’t one of doom and gloom. It’s a message of, if you want to do (something), you should go and do it.”

— Reported by Matt Benoit


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