It’s been more than a year since Steven Sotloff’s death, but the legacy he left behind has encouraged aspiring UCF journalists to follow in his footsteps as foreign correspondents.
Steven, a 31-year-old freelance journalist and former UCF student, was beheaded about a year ago by the Islamic State after being held captive in Syria for 13 months.
Last Thursday, the Pentagon announced that the man behind Steven’s murder, “Jihadi John,” had been targeted in a U.S. air strike.
Steven’s parents, however, said the government’s actions were “too little, too late” at an event Monday night to commemorate Steven’s life and legacy.
“He won’t have the opportunity to murder anyone else, but there are five or six people ready to take his place,” his father Arthur said.
These dangers didn’t deter Steven from doing the work he loved, his parents said.
In fact, they said he loved his work because it gave him the chance to use the freedoms granted to him to help others.
His mother Shirley spoke about the words Steven wrote in a letter smuggled to his family during his captivity: “Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”
“Steven began to accept that he would not return home and that his first life, that he had relished and lived to the fullest, was coming to an end,” she said. “His second life began. He urged his family not to grieve for him, but instead to honor him by cherishing the freedoms that we all have.”
She described Steven as a man known for curiosity and love for people, which led him to a career in telling the stories of those who are denied the freedom to tell their own.
“Steven showed us that no matter who you are or where you come from, if you listen and step out of your comfort zone, you will learn, you will grow and you will experience life through a newer, larger lens,” she said.
At the end of the event, Shirley and Arthur said they wanted students to take away from their son’s legacy a belief in what they’re doing and a commitment to honesty in their reporting.
“Realize that what you’re doing is a contribution to society. That people are depending on you to know what’s going on in the world, and it’s up to you … to report what’s going on … like Steven did,” Arthur said. “He was reporting things that no one else was reporting.
“He wanted to bring that to the surface. He wanted to let people know that people were suffering all over the world.”
It is a lesson that many UCF journalism students have taken to heart.
“I think that the dangers associated with overseas reporting shows how important it really is,” said Alíssa Smith, a senior business management and journalism double major. “If reporters didn’t inspire change, if they didn’t scare those who abuse their power, then no one would consider them a threat, and journalists wouldn’t have to worry about getting killed or kidnapped.”
Smith said she’s considering becoming a foreign correspondent, even though the idea frightens her.
“I would be absolutely terrified of being killed for just telling the truth, but journalists are supposed to be beacons of truth and justice,” she said. “You should fight for those principles even in the face of danger or death.”
Cristóbal Reyes-Rios, a junior political science and journalism double major, was born into a Chilean family and said that this sparked his interest in working as a foreign correspondent, whom he said are individuals who fulfill a vital service in our society.
“Embedded journalists, correspondents assigned to cover dangerous countries and so on do an admirable job in service to the people, perhaps more so than any other profession,” Reyes-Rios said. “Without those people, what kind of information would we receive from places like Syria, Iraq?
“Or in countries in Latin America like Paraguay, where one journalist carries a gun in order to protect himself from gangs who constantly try to kill him? How much would we actually have access to?”
Reyes-Rios said he acknowledges the dangers that come with the job, but they wouldn’t stop him from getting the story.
Kyra Clark, a sophomore journalism major, was born in India and said she, like Reyes-Rios, wants to tell the stories of those who most often go unheard, despite the potential risks.
“If anything, learning about the dangers associated with this line of work just helps me identify whether or not I truly want to pursue this dream. And I do, despite the possible outcome,” Clark said.
Journalists like Steven are essential in telling the stories of people around the world, and they play a very important role in becoming the vehicles in which that information affects our country.
It’s one of the reasons Marissa Mahoney, a senior journalism major, wants to follow in Steven’s footsteps.
“I want to pursue international coverage because what’s happening in Lebanon matters,” Mahoney said. “What’s happening in France matters. What’s happening in Kenya matters.
“No longer can Americans sit back and say that what occurs abroad won’t have a ripple effect here.”
Ultimately, the sentiment shared by these journalism students was that individuals like Steven are essential to enforcing one of the most important foundations of journalism itself: seeking and reporting the truth, no matter the consequences.
“There’s a quote about the truth being a lion that defends itself,” Smith said. “As journalists, we shouldn’t be afraid of opening its cage.”
Editor’s note: Due to the nature of this story, some sources maybe students who work for the Central Florida Future and our competitors. We believe this makes their sentiments all the more powerful.
Deanna Ferrante is a Senior Staff Writer and Watchdog Reporter for the Central Florida Future.