National Press Club

War Reporting is Journalism in the Midst of Humanity, Correspondents Say

March 10, 2010 | By Gil Klein |

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War correspondents are a breed apart in journalism – people who are willing to risk their lives in the most dangerous situations to bring back a story to the American people. At a March 8 Kalb Report, four leading war correspondents said they do it because it's the only way to get the story.

“You can’t write credibly about what the United States is doing in Afghanistan without being there,” Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a senior correspondent and associate editor of the Washington Post, told host Marvin Kalb.

Chandrasekaran, who has written extensively about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, said, “You have to walk shoulder to shoulder with the troops.”

Probably 250,000 Americans are serving in the military and as contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, yet the average person hardly thinks of them.

“In one day on the ground in Afghanistan,” he said, “I learn more than 30 days interviewing people in Washington.”

CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick is recovering from wounds she suffered from an IED explosion while traveling with troops in Afghanistan in August 2009. Yet, she said she looks forward to returning.

“I would like to go back to a country no longer at war,” she said. She remembers an Afghan governor who was targeted over and over for assassination by the Taliban. She asked him why he kept at it.

“He told me, ‘If I don’t go back to work, we hand it over to these people,’ ” she said. “You often see the best of humanity in these awful situations.”

ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz agreed that war reporting puts a journalist in the middle of the greatest human drama.

“You see every part of humanity. Everything a human being has inside of them,” she said. “Once you’ve seen that, a story that intense, it’s a little hard to come back and cover a hearing on Capitol Hill.”

Technology advancements have been both good and bad for war reporting, the correspondents said. It’s never been easier to get the story back in real time. Yet now reporters are expected to report on more platforms and perform more tasks themselves, including shooting their own video.

“It’s very difficult to be a journalist these days because you are expected to do so much,” McCormick said. She said finding the time to do extensive reporting is difficult. She was wounded when she finally had time during a weekend to get out into the field with the troops.

“There’s a danger you will have people there who are better transmitters than they are journalists,” she said.

Raddatz said it is great to be able to file to different platforms, “but I don’t want the next generation of reporters tweeting all day.”

War correspondents never get used to watching people get killed around them, the panelists agreed. But they said journalists in war zones have to separate themselves from it.

“You learn to moderate your own reactions,” said Los Angeles Times correspondent Laura King, who is leaving this week for another tour in Afghanistan. “You have to be paying attention and thinking of your own safety. You can’t just collapse.”

And reporters always have to be aware of the danger of the situation – perhaps more dangerous than in other wars because journalists are now targets, the correspondents said. No longer can a reporter just drop into a war zone without careful training.

“It’s far more dangerous than people understand,” Raddatz said about trying to get more information on what people in the country are thinking. “You can’t say, ‘I’ll meet you at 5 o’clock' because by 6 you could be dead.”