Reporting War

Thirteen conflict journalists gathered recently at Bretton Woods, N.H., to discuss their careers as war reporters and photographers, the craft of combat journalism and the challenges raised by these difficult assignments.

Thirteen conflict journalists gathered recently at Bretton Woods, N.H., to discuss their careers as war reporters and photographers, the craft of combat journalism and the challenges raised by these difficult assignments.

The meeting was convened by the Dart Society, the organization of Dart Ochberg Fellows and Dart Award winners. After two days of off-the-record discussions, the participants spoke on-the-record on the final day of the meeting about what they had learned and what they would share with other reporters facing war-reporting assignments.

Reporting on war and large-scale conflict is among the most challenging assignments reporters or photographers can face. Such experiences can have profound and lasting effects on a journalist.

Dana Hull, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who covered the Iraq war for Knight Ridder in 2003, said: "Your war experience will just sort of live on in you, regardless of how many years it's been." She added, "That can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing depending on how you deal with it."

Reflecting on his time in Central America during the 1980s, independent journalist Bill Gentile said, "These are life-defining experiences. You know, I see much of my life through the prism of that experience and that will never go away, and I don't want it to go away."

The importance of community

Most of the participants identified being part of a network or community as an important factor in maintaining emotional health. But since journalists often do their work in isolation, they may not be aware of the networks and communities to which they are attached.

"You are a part of a group," Time contract photographer Robert Nickelsberg said. "While you may look to be as independent as possible, it's still necessary to be attached to a larger group outside-family, colleagues, desks."

Correspondents often feel solidarity with others who covered the same conflict. Sometimes that solidarity can obscure the common experiences shared by journalists who covered other conflicts, however. Noting journalists' tendency in the past to form these groupings, Columbia University professor Judith Matloff (a member of the Dart Center advisory council) said, "You can transcend this grouping by generation and geography. We have all basically gone through the same stuff. There's a wider community that spans beyond those particular incidents or events which shaped us individually."

Several participants noted how important it is for experienced journalists to give help and advice to younger ones.

Newhouse News military writer David Wood (a 2001 Ochberg Fellow) said that during the meeting he had been "looking back at the things I've done with a certain amount of horror," recalling his early days in the field. In those days, he said, "I'd never really thought about what I was doing, never particularly prepared, learned things by making stupid mistakes along the way."

Freelance correspondent Scott Wallace (a 2004 Ochberg Fellow) emphasized "how important it is to network with experienced journalists, and how important it is for experienced journalists to make themselves available to younger ones." He recalled the invaluable help he had received from Robert Nickelsberg in El Salvador. "It's so important to be able to turn to colleagues for help and to be able to ask for that help in the field like there's somebody there at the other end extending a hand when needed."

Army Times reporter Gina Cavallaro said that it's not just younger reporters who need help. "It's never too late to seek out advice from your colleagues, and that's a lesson that I've learned," she said. She also noted that there is no clear dividing line separating experienced and inexperienced war journalists. "I don't know when you go from being a rookie to being a seasoned correspondent," she said. "I don't know if it's a matter of hours, months, years, number of trips."

North County Times reporter Darrin Mortenson said, "If you have covered one conflict, or one firefight, or one dangerous situation, or you've been doing it for 30 years, you're drawing on your personal strength, you're drawing on your professional tools and you're encountering the same things and making the same kind of decisions and you hear that from people who've, you know, covered wars for decades here. And they're still going through that decision-making process and judgments and stuff like that, and it kind of empowered me as a younger journalist. You know, I have the tools, I'm put in the same situations, and I can get through it like everyone else can. And there'll be successes and there'll be failures, and I'll always wonder about some things, and I'll always feel guilty about some things and I'll always feel like I didn't do enough but I can constantly overcome all of those challenges."

Advice for future war journalists

Hull (a 2004 Ochberg Fellow) said a journalist considering a war-zone assignment should "really ask yourself why are you going, and are you prepared for the risks.” She added: “And for managers, who are you sending? And what can they bring to the story over someone else that you might send? Be prepared to come home and there might not ever be another story in your life that grabs you as intimately as this one will and what are you going to do after that for an encore or will there be an encore. Be prepared to be disappointed with the stories that come afterwards."

Alissa Rubin, L.A. Times co-bureau chief in Baghdad, said: "The most important thing, I think, for someone who is going over, is to realize that you're a reporter or journalist but you're also very much a human being, and that is going to come out in a way in a war situation that it won't anywhere else, because you're dealing with the biggest of the big issues. You're seeing places destroyed, people dead, or their families' enormous emotion."

Former Knight Ridder Baghdad bureau chief Hannah Allam (she will become Cairo bureau chief in January) said she had been unprepared for the sense of alienation from family and friends she felt upon her return from Iraq. "I wish I had known, upfront, more about the changes to expect in myself," she said.

The Effects of Stress

The discussion also addressed the possible effects of stress on job performance and news judgment.

Minneapolis Star Tribune international correspondent Sharon Schmickle said, "The tradition in journalism has been that you find talented and plucky and willing people-resourceful people-and send them off to do these missions expecting that they'll succeed. And it has produced some stunning success stories, and I think that some of the people who have done that are in this room now. But there has been a certain kind of self indulgence a certain macho about the whole method of operating as well and I really wonder if we aren't at a point where we recognize that we don't need that, that it really doesn't serve us." She said that stress can affect the quality of someone's journalism, but not in obvious ways. "Having been in conflict situations, in difficult spots, I think the issue is more one of a gradual wearing down of people," she said. "I don't think people are at the top of their performance after grinding along. I'm not sure that there's this flash of danger that does it. But I think it's a gradual wearing down of people's strengths and I think that people need to recognize that more and prevent that kind of erosion of strength."

"Does it affect you if you don't take care of yourself?" Rubin asked. "I think what's affected isn't the short-term story, because people are professionals and everybody can write a daily story. I think what you lose is the ability to step back and see where it fits and think more analytically about things and to say You know, I'm not going to tell about these four assassinations that I witnessed, because actually there are 20 of them a day. And what we need to write about are the 20 that there are a day, or the 120 a week. And I think that is where you see the cost. If we're going to do our work well, you have to constantly-and to me, it's the hardest thing to do-you have to get really close and immersed and feel it and have that visceral sense and then be able to step back and say OK. What does it really mean? What does this story add up to? That's very difficult for people to do."

Allam said that after seeing the effects of war coverage on many of her colleagues she had assumed that there was "no healthy way" to be a war reporter and that "if you want to do this, you're going to become an unhappy, lonely, traumatized person." "That's just seemed to be the experience of so many of my colleagues in Baghdad," she said. Now, however, she said she realizes that there is a "healthy way" to do the work. "You just have to know yourself, have a good network of people around you, and know your own limits."