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Editorial: The RisksOf Coverage

Just when it was easy to start thinking of CNN’s Anderson Cooper as a syndicated talk show hostlining up clearances, or simply an anchor stud, along comes the Egyptian crisis to remind us that journalism can be a tough and dangerous and vital job that deserves our respect.

Journalists covering the protests, including Cooper, have been punched and harassed, hounded, beaten and intimidated, as the growing list of incidents from the Committee to Protect Journalists indicated last week.

Journalists around the globe risk their lives daily, a fact that the world is reminded of periodically with high-profile incidents (see Daniel Pearl, Kimberly Dozier, Bob Woodruff and this conflict’s first reported journalist casualty, Ahmad Mohamed Mahmoud), but is a constant companion for many in this business.

We were reminded last week of the veteran war correspondent who once told us that his bosses were starting to count paper clips on his expense reports and cutting out the occasional trips to cover the Cannes Film Festival, forgetting that the other side of this was leaving his family and home at a moment’s notice to potentially get shot at on trips to cover war zones, with the possibility of not coming back.

The news media was leading, rather than following, the Egypt story. According to a Pew survey, major national news organizations devoted more time to Egypt than any other story in the first few days of the unfolding drama, while the public’s focus was still on the Tucson shootings and the President’s State of the Union speech. We’ll wager that by last week, as the protests spread to nearby countries, and a peaceful demonstration turned quickly and terrifyingly violent, the interest index will show that the public’s fascination with Egypt had caught up with news organizations’ massing of resources.

And beyond the spot news coverage, journalists were providing context, pointing out that this conflict involving others half a world away was partly about disenfranchised poor and young people frustrated because they could not find jobs, themes that could and should resonate in the U.S. as well.

While traditional news organizations were doing much of the heavy lifting, including Al Jazeera, whose streamed coverage drew new attention to that outlet, social media became a big part of the story as well. “Mr. Mubarak, tear down this firewall,” read one of the tweets in reaction to the Egyptian government’s crackdown on Internet access and mobile communications.

In that move, we think the Egyptian president made a major miscalculation. The “old think” of clamping down on media outlets has far wider implications in the new media world.

In the old days, strong-arming those outlets meant cutting off access to a one-way service that, though important, was not personal. In an age when community and contact are increasingly about social networking and tweeting and texting, pulling the plug on those is like a government posting an armed guard in every home and preventing people from seeing or talking to each other. That is something entirely different, and should serve as a warning to dictators everywhere.