Many print journalists will relate to the circumstances leading to the macabre murder of 30-year-old Swedish journalist Kim Wall. Those who do solo reporting (no TV crew, no photographer, no colleagues) surely have found themselves from time to time alone with a source who is at once fascinating and unnerving.
Sometimes the contact makes an inappropriate sexual gesture, a common complaint that is not limited to women interviewing men by any means. Sometimes they start out docile and then turn angry and defensive if you ask what they believe is a provocative question. You are suddenly placed in a position where you either have to walk away and leave the story behind or go forward, trying to calculate the risk. In reality, most of us just take the risk.
Wall most certainly did so when she agreed to go out on a homemade submarine with Danish inventor Peter Madsen on Aug. 10. She probably wasn’t even scared until it was too late. Maybe she never even knew the danger she was in, especially if she died instantly. One hopes she wasn’t tortured or that her death wasn’t somehow part of a sick game, although videos about decapitation reportedly were found on Madsen’s hard drive.
No one but Madsen knows just what Wall went through between the time she got on the submarine and when he allegedly stabbed her 15 times, decapitated her, and cut her limbs from her body with a hacksaw. No one even knows in what order those horrific attacks took place. And unless Madsen confesses, we will never know why he allegedly snapped, whether she spurned a sexual advance or just pissed him off with her line of questioning, or something else.
Wall was a seasoned journalist and she surely felt safe in Sweden. She had reported in far more dangerous places, from torture cells in Uganda to the hostile “hermit kingdom” of North Korea, and she worked for big publications like The New York Times, The Guardian and Harper’s, which featured her work for just the type of risk-taking reporting she was very good at.
Her torso, found 10 days after she disappeared, weighted down with metal to keep it from floating to the surface, had been mutilated and smashed to ensure the gasses associated with decomposition wouldn’t make it buoyant, according to autopsy reports in the Swedish press.
Madsen originally told police he had left her on the shore alive. Then, when Wall’s blood allegedly was found in his submarine, which he says he sank deliberately, he changed his story and said she hit her head when he lost his grip on the submarine’s heavy hatch, and he buried her at sea.
“It was a terrible accident, a disaster, no doctor could have done anything,” Madsen told a judge during his first court appearance this week, according to press accounts. “Kim was severely injured. There was a pool of blood where she landed. I touched her neck, but she had no pulse.”
He then said he felt suicidal and sank his sub but “gained strength,” which might also be read as “chickened out,” and called for help a day later as it filled with water. He denied knowing about Wall’s death until her body washed up on shore.
It is natural to look at Wall’s death as a gender issue. After all, there are plenty of examples of female reporters being threatened, raped, or sexually assaulted on the job. The Committee to Protect Journalists has found that many female journalists don’t report threats and assaults for fear of being taken off jobs or passed over for hard-hitting assignments. And that raises a critical issue if we simply assume she was targeted because she was a woman. The last thing we want is to be passed over for an assignment “because of what happened to Kim Wall.”
(It should be noted, that it is not just out on assignments where women are vulnerable. Allegations of sexual harassment at Fox News headquarters—that led to the ouster of the network’s chairman Roger Ailes and main anchor Bill O’Reilly—prove that women can be targeted in almost any situation.)
Investigators have not determined if Wall was sexually assaulted. She did have knife wounds to her genitals, which could have been made when her legs were being amputated, but apparently too much of her torso is missing for tests to be conclusive. There is no indication that Madsen, who denies the claims that he dismembered her, could have targeted her because of her gender. He says her death was an accident. A male reporter might have met a similar fate.
It’s also easy to make her death an issue about the danger of freelancing, since free-agent journalists don’t often enjoy the same protections as staffers when out on assignment. But recent cases, including the brutal 2011 sexual assault of 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo, show that it can happen to anyone. Logan had full security detail and was still pulled away.
Any lessons that might be drawn from Wall’s horrific death are troubling. Should women go out on stories with male sources alone? Of course we should. There was little in Madsen’s past that indicated he was potentially a lethal source. Should freelancers hire private security or demand protection be provided by those who commission stories? If they do, they can probably kiss their freelance careers good-bye since no one can afford such a luxury.
Had Wall been with a TV crew or another journalist, she might still be alive today, but getting the story often means going it alone. Like most journalists doing profile pieces, she most likely preferred to have exclusive access to Madsen. Had she lived, the story would have been like many of her others: insightful, well-written, and a toast to what on-scene journalism should be. But instead, her horrific death has made her the subject of just the sort of story she would have excelled in reporting.
UPDATE 7:00 a.m. EDT, 7 October 2017: On Saturday, according to the BBC, Copenhagen police inspector Jens Moller Jensen told reporters that divers had found bags containing Wall's head, legs, and clothing in Koge Bay, south of the city. The bags had been weighed down with pieces of metal. Moller Jensen said a postmortem confirmed the head was Wall's and that it showed "no sign of fracture" or "any sign of other blunt violence to the skull."