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The Undercurrents of War Reporting

Interviewee: Jane Arraf, 2005-2006 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow
September 14, 2009

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As part of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Former fellow Jane Arraf discusses the intensity and complications of covering a war and " the luxury of stepping back and taking a wider look," afforded to her by her fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations. For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.

What is one international story or topic (of your own reporting) that you believe had the greatest impact and why? Explain why you chose to report it.

I was with the Marines in Fallujah in November 2004 for CNN. After the horrendous fighting that leveled a large part of the city, the Marines were searching each house and still both finding insurgents and civilians. A lot of times they couldn't tell the difference. The beginning of the battle when I was embedded with the Army had been bad enough-the almost constant explosions, the hammering of the guns from the Bradlees, the almost total darkness once night fell. With the main fighting over though it got much more complicated.

The survivors who wouldn't or couldn't leave were starting to come out.  One couple had buried their son in their garden because it was too dangerous to try to get to the morgue. Walking down the street with a Marine patrol, a group of men came into view holding white flags. There was a horrible, heart-stopping moment while the Marines tried to decide whether to let them approach or treat them as if they might be hiding weapons. War from a distance so often can seem so black and white that it's only up close-and often dangerously close-that one can ever begin to explain the impact, the ambiguity and the countless stories behind the story that are the heart and soul of any nation.

During the ground fighting in 2003, as each U.S. casualty was meticulously reported, I set out to find how many Iraqi soldiers had died in the war. My Iraqi producer and I waded through death records at an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk as looters took everything but the coffins for soldiers and the Iraqi flags used to drape them in. We tracked down Iraqi mothers who received their sons' bodies but never learned how or where they'd died.

In the immediacy of covering a war, one thing one misses is the luxury of stepping back and taking a wider look. That was what I found at the Council in 2005 and 2006 after two years immersed in the war-the lovely calm with nothing exploding-the world of ideas and ability to explore how we got to where we are in Iraq today.

Do you have any ideas-whether yours or someone else's-for how the news industry can sustain serious international reporting at a time of great upheaval in the media?

In turbulent times when difficult choices are being made, sustaining serious international reporting is partly a function of institutionally deciding that the story is important enough and figuring out creative ways to cover it. Iraq astonishingly has 130,000 U.S. troops here but in many ways feels like the forgotten war. Many  newspapers, magazines and networks have pulled out entirely. One of the arguments has been that stories from Iraq don't sell. There are compelling, hugely important stories here but they're not immediately obvious unless as a journalist you're given the backing and the freedom to go out and explore them. We tend to put stories and war reporting particularly-in a strait jacket-either combat or stories of civilians. But there are huge undercurrents here- political, environmental, economic-with far-reaching repercussions.

In places like Iraq where there has been a blossoming of media outlets, more can be done to develop the capability of local journalists to be able to tell their stories  themselves to the West- perhaps through institutionalized links with American media outlets. The focus now seems to be on Western government-sponsored training which emphasizes quantity rather than quality.

In Nassariyah in the south of Iraq last week I sat with 15 Iraqi journalists and heard much the same discussion I might have heard in the US  - talk of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable and the problem of a lack of independent media. One of the main obstacles here and in other parts of the region is that journalism pays so little here that it fosters a climate where taking money from sources to write stories is seen as a necessary practice.  Supporting some local media outlets to ensure properly paid, properly trained local journalists would go a long way in filling in the gaps in international reporting that we can't or won't do in tough times.

 

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