The death of Kim Wall is not just a crime-novel tale

Swedish journalist Kim Wall.
Swedish journalist Kim Wall.
Image: TT News Agency/ Tom Wall Handout via Reuters
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The disappearance and death of freelance Swedish journalist Kim Wall hasn’t been covered by the media like an ordinary crime. The details have made for a compelling story. She was a young, intrepid reporter, exploring an unusual story involving a DIY submarine, a vessel that then sank in Danish waters. Her death was confirmed after DNA tests of a mutilated torso washed up on the shore of an island. The suspect is an eccentric inventor who keeps changing his account.

The coverage has often compared the unfolding events to the twists of the kind found in the crime novels and TV shows that have been a distinctive product of Scandinavia.  

But those who knew her in the journalism community were quick to point out that behind the gruesome details and the knee-jerk framing is a person, with friends and family, first worried, and then deeply saddened by her fate.  

“I really liked Kim, everyone did,” says Keith Collins, a Quartz reporter who was a classmate at Columbia University’s journalism school in New York City. “That sounds like something you just say but in her case it’s really true. She’s the kind of person people gravitate to because she’s warm and welcoming and has that sort of infectious curiosity. Every time I saw her she hugged like we hadn’t seen each other in years, that’s how she was.”

Mustafa Hameed, another classmate at Columbia, said she was a “wonderful person,” and that “it’s difficult to put into words how well-loved she was among both our classmates and her circle of freelancers. Journalism aside, she was a kind, warm, cheerful person who was truly unlike anyone else I’ve ever met.”

After her death was confirmed, her family issued a statement underlining her important work around the world: “She gave voice to the weak, the vulnerable and marginalized people. That voice had been needed for a long time. Now it is gone.”

The disappearance and deaths of journalists often raise broader concerns, highlighting the risks of the profession.

We still don’t know what exactly happened to Wall, who was 30. She was last seen with the inventor, Peter Madsen, on his submarine, which she boarded on Aug. 10. She was said to be planning to sell the story to Wired magazine. Her boyfriend reported her missing after she didn’t return when she had planned. 

The inventor has changed his story several times about what happened aboard the submarine, investigators have said. At first Madsen said he dropped Wall off on land, then that she had died in an accident, and that he buried her at sea. On Aug. 22, police found a torso whose head, legs, and arms had been cut off. Today, they confirmed the body was Wall’s. Investigators also said coagulated blood had been found in the submarine. 

The overall lack of certainty makes it hard to know what, if anything, could have been done to prevent her death. On the face of it, the submarine story didn’t seem like one that would require heightened concern or security measures—especially for Wall, who had experience reporting from far-flung and hazardous places like Haiti, Sri Lanka, and North Korea.

It’s easy to imagine that even if she had worked on staff for a news organization—barring the biggest TV networks, which routinely provide security for reporters and crews—Wall could’ve easily ended up on the submarine alone with Madsen. Could a business card with a big-name media company with deep pockets and a legal team ready for action have helped? We’ll likely never know. There have certainly been situations in which even that backup has left reporters exposed—journalists working for large outlets have been assaulted and murdered, and the vast majority of journalists who are killed on the job are on staff, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). 

Still, Wall’s disappearance has re-surfaced concerns about the safety of freelance journalists, a debate that was widely rekindled after news of the 2014 death of James Foley in Syria. And this time, the discussion also inevitably includes whether her gender was a factor.

Wall’s friend, Sruthi Gottipati, writes at The Guardian about the double edged-sword that is freelance reporting as a woman. Wall’s disappearance is “a chilling reminder that women’s safety can’t be shrugged off as a problem specific to developing countries, as if the west is immune to misogyny,” she says. And then there’s the question of women asserting their right to do the stories they choose:

As news organizations grapple with shrinking budgets, they increasingly rely on freelancers, who cost less and are often willing to take on the attendant risks reporting in places they wouldn’t send their staff to. Even against this backdrop, the competition is fierce to place stories and female freelancers work hard to ensure their gender isn’t calculated as a liability. So they clam up about the dangers they face and sometimes report before being commissioned to do so.

Of course, it’s unclear what would’ve happened if Wall had been a man in this particular situation. In many cases, women might be more vulnerable to violence in the field than men, and one-fifth of respondents in an international survey of women journalists have reported experiencing physical violence in relation to the job. But as one Quartz staffer pointed out, women sometimes report from situations where a male subject might be less willing to pick a fight with a female reporter.

Lynsey Addario, an award-winning war photographer for the Times, addressed this complicated question in a discussion with CPJ in 2011. She had been captured and held by forces loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi along with several male colleagues. Lauren Wolfe from CPJ noted that one of Addario’s colleagues said that she had it worse:

Who can qualify what’s worse? Who has the right to say what’s worse? For me, when I was getting groped, I was listening to them—and I could only listen because I was blindfolded—I was listening to them get smashed on the head and I can hear them scream, like, grunting, and to me that was so painful…It was horrible for all of us. I don’t understand why this is so much worse for me? Is it because I’m a woman? I don’t know who has the answer to that question.

Wall’s untimely death—something that likely could have happened to a staff reporter or a male journalist—underscores an important issue: Behind every seemingly sensationalistic murder there’s the personal story of the victim and their circumstances.