Reporters tell war stories at ESIA

Sunday, May 3

A panel of journalists shared the horrors and difficulties of war reporting in a discussion Thursday night at the Elliott School.

The event, hosted by the GW chapter of Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, was designed to promote freedom of the press, particularly in war zones.

The journalists on the panel included writers and one photographer, each of whom had experience working in areas with dangerous conflict, like the Middle East and Mexico.

Sean Aday, a professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs, spoke about the security issues journalists must contend with and the emotional burdens they carry.

One story he told referenced a compound in Iraq that houses and protects two major television stations. On the outside walls there is graffiti that translates to “the media are the corpses and we are the grave diggers.”

“Emotion can make a great journalist,” said Aday. “But there is a time when you have your story and you have to let it speak for itself.”

Nancy Youssef, who spent four years in Iraq as a bureau chief for McClatchy News, described how difficult it was to remain professional and unbiased to her subjects when she dodged bullets and cried with them almost daily.

“At the height of the violence, I always felt like I was in a dark room with a little flashlight just reporting on what I could see,” Youssef said. “You always have to ask, ‘What does this mean?’ “

Youssef wrote many stories while stationed in Iraq, but one – a trend story about Iraqis having their names and addresses tattooed on their thighs so they could be identified if they turned up dead in the street – was a story that stuck with her. The thigh is the body part most likely to be intact when a corpse arrives at the morgue, she said.

Immersing herself amongst the people, Youssef said, was the only way to truly understand the situation. But she still had to avoid becoming too close to the events and losing sight of the broader picture.

Omar Fekeiki, an Iraqi journalist who worked for The Washington Post in Baghdad from 2003 to 2006, spoke about the obstacles foreign correspondents face in getting access and information. He said journalists must contend with a wide culture and language barrier, and added that sources that would refuse to speak with Fekeiki after learning he was a reporter.

“It is all worth it,” he said. “The satisfaction of going home and going to bed with this feeling of writing about something that you think is worth publishing, that people’s lives are made better because of your story, it is all worth it. It all comes in a package, the danger, it is all part of the package we choose.”

Incoming GW Amnesty International president Michael Mort said the event – which drew more than 100 people – exceeded his expectations.

“This is something that we have wanted to do for a while,” said Mort. “The issues taking place in Gaza and the fact that the reporters were not allowed in to view the situation really spurred the idea of the event. We reached out to Reporters Without Borders for the collaboration. It took a long time but really came together. The panelists were fantastic.”

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