Journalists like to think of themselves as responding to a calling, or duty. For some journalists, there are stories that are worth taking a calculated risk to obtain—pieces that establish responsibility for organized rapes or massacres, for example, or reports that implicate powerful figures in corruption or organized crime. These are stories that would otherwise not be told.
Every high-risk decision brings both the potential of lasting, positive impact, and the possibility of permanent, tragic loss. Decisions about risk are highly personal, but the individual should be keenly self-aware. Your emotions come into play, as does adrenaline. A good story with an element of danger can bring with it a rush as compelling as sex or drugs.
In such a moment, you might be wise to ask yourself: Am I being driven by the emotions of the moment? How much of my decision is driven by ego? How much am I motivated by telling the story—and how much by the glory I might derive from telling it? Am I trying to prove something to myself or others? Perhaps every journalist is motivated by some incalculable mix of service and ego, intellect and emotion. Experience can help you better discern between duty, ego, and adrenaline.
My advice: Give yourself a chance to understand not only your coverage area, but yourself. There are plenty of tough stories to go around. If you really want to take on a dangerous beat, you’ll get your chance. So, yes, J-school students, your professors are right: Go ahead, go overseas. But start with a beat that allows you to learn—mainly about yourself.