The Digital Journalist
Going to War

by Ron Steinman

April 2006

According to Reporters Sans Frontieres -- Reporters Without Borders -- at least 83 journalists from those countries covering the war in Iraq have been killed there since its start in the spring of 2003. The headline in The New York Times and variations in other newspapers were very clear: "Iraq Has Become the Deadliest Place for Journalists." These are very high numbers of dead in so short a time and already exceed those of journalists killed in Vietnam. Journalists' deaths in other wars pale by comparison. Iraq is a very dangerous place and I predict that if there is what some are already calling a civil war, Iraq will become even deadlier to the correspondent, the non-combatant we depend on to report the story.

I purposely waited for enough time to pass after the Jan. 29th wounding of ABC News' Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt before writing about reporters who go to war, whether network anchors or everyday correspondents, knowing that some have been wounded, and, as the war continues, that more will suffer wounds and others will die. Having covered my share of wars and dangerous assignments - including floods, hurricanes, riots, fires, plane crashes and the like -- I cannot help but wonder if the rewards outweigh the risks. After all these years, I still am not sure.

It is an important, though curious, and often unusual step when a journalist goes to war, or seeks a dangerous assignment. Covering the same typical beat day after day can be boring. Some reporters want to cover more than their usual beat. War coverage, when accepted and understood, beats covering news conferences and garden clubs, to name only a few. It did for me. It is always important to stretch oneself no matter what the profession, but not for the obvious reasons. Covering wars, riots, revolutions and extreme events such as natural disasters is not for everyone. Many correspondents never get close to a war zone or any kind of conflict. That is their choice, as it should be. Editors or producers should not make the mistake of assigning someone to cover something that will be out of their depth or far from their desire, even their natural instinct. The only way to go to war, or to cover an extreme event, is to volunteer. Rarely will news management demand that a reporter undertake danger without agreeing to the assignment. Managers had better know their staff before they assign anyone to cover a potentially dangerous event. It can prove to be disastrous in the moment and in the future for the individual who finds him or herself in a perilous position.

Adventure calls only a few. For those people, the desire to get into a war zone and away from the mundane is fully understandable. It is akin to a military officer doing the same to get credit for time served under fire, or, as the saying goes, getting their ticket punched. Not every journalist who goes to war, once they arrive, wants to be in a war zone. A few soon discover war is cruel and deadly, not a video game. In the past, I might have said that war is not a Hollywood movie, but violent video games are pervasive. More to the point, not all reporters are fearless. Some are frightened when covering a story where bombs and death are commonplace. That is not a criticism. It is how it should be for some. For them it is reality.

Covering war is potentially risky. For the individual it is a test of will and courage. Some correspondents, and especially TV anchors, believe it will build for them greater understanding of the world. Do not be too sure of that. Much war coverage is reactive. I distrusted any correspondent who worked for me who wanted to cover only combat, and we had much of it in Vietnam. I believed that kind of eagerness was self-destructive to the reporter, dangerous to everyone in his crew, to the bureau and to the home office, not to mention how it might skew the story in unexpected ways.

A problem with anchors going into a war zone is the "big foot" syndrome, whereby they come in from headquarters and steal the story from the folks who have been covering the story day in, day out. It does nothing for morale to have someone come in for a few weeks to get what he or she calls "a sense of life on the ground" at the expense of those who might be under fire every day. It happens frequently in broadcasting and less so in other media. In media other than broadcasting, a senior correspondent has less "face" than does someone who appears on the small screen. Bylines come and go and most readers do not know one from the other. In TV, the byline is the face. And even the casual viewer might know when the star appears instead of the grunt doing the daily dirty work.

In my bureaus I rated correspondents for the quality of their work and for the approach they brought to their coverage. Putting correspondents into categories helped me run my assignment desk. I assessed reporters on their work and attitude, with the two braided. Often the reporter could hardly tell where one started and the other ended. There were the war lovers, the reluctant warriors, the risk takers, the fearful, and even the slackers. Anchors are not immune to these definitions. War lovers were the biggest and most difficult to handle. They wanted to live only in the field. Many times the war lover returned from the field with stories in his own image. I suspect, because I do not know, that the same prevails today. When a war lover returned to his home base, I often wondered where fantasy began and truth ended, especially when adrenalin dominated the story the correspondent was telling.

In Vietnam, battle coverage was more important to the home office than telling political, social or cultural stories. As a bureau chief, sending my people into battle was never easy. Initially I handled those assignments delicately, gingerly. Then, as the war became more intense, oddly, it became easier. Often there was no time to think. Reflection never works when running a fast-moving "city desk" as many of us did in Vietnam. When I sent my teams out, I admonished them to be cautious. We worked under the repeated mantra of the considered risk: no story was worth injury or, worse, death. Yet, I never second-guessed myself. There were enough sleepless nights for other reasons than to question my own judgment running a bureau in a war zone. I sent many teams of a correspondent, cameraman and soundman into potentially messy situations. Though some may have been unhappy, I never heard a rumble from anyone. I will not pretend to know why. They may have expressed unhappiness to others, to their peers, their lovers, even their enemies, but never to me.

Did my teams learn anything from covering war? Yes, they did, but exactly what is impossible to know. Did they learn anything in the moment or did what they learned appear many years later as delayed responses in other phases of their lives? Did I learn anything from covering wars and dangerous conflicts? I probably learned more about myself than I realized at the time. Then again, I was in Saigon for years, not days or weeks. Most of the correspondents I had in Vietnam were there for a minimum of six months. Some stayed as long as 18 months or two years. Of course, a reporter can stay at the dance too long for the wrong reasons. Covering war is addictive to the few who cover only war, war all the time. There are those, and I was one of them, who stayed because I believed the story called for more reporting. I thought I might be present for something unusual, and I was when the Tet Offensive hit.

In Northern Ireland when we covered riots almost every day straight during the first four years of "The Troubles," we had crews there regularly, but the correspondents and the producers went in irregularly, and just as well. Petrol bombs, rubber bullets, jagged rocks and frequent bombs blowing up in the streets, destroying homes and pubs, were often more frightening than live ammunition. It was a different war, but it was no less demanding on the psyche and spirit of the people who covered it.

Does going to war for a short visit do anything for the anchor? Probably not very much in the end, except to say by inference to his audience, "I was there. You saw me there, which means I know more about the situation that you do." Certainly, if he or she is human, the misery touches him or her, as it should. I admit it may help them to have greater empathy for everyone in the war, and future wars, and that is good, but if the anchor is mature, that should be part of his or her makeup anyway. A short visit by any reporter to a war zone does very little to advance the story. When anchors venture into unknown territory, especially a war, there should be careful consideration of what he or she will bring to the audience. That must have the highest importance to the network that sends an anchor to war. And perhaps, news organizations will have second thoughts in the future.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.