UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 2 | Feb.
Have Flak Jacket, Will Travel
A war correspondents view from the trenches
By Erica Smishek
The Persian Gulf War brought us the Scud Stud, CNNs
24-hour news coverage and scathing criticism from news organizations
about how the press had been controlled.
The coverage of the Persian Gulf War is a lesson in
how not to cover a war, says Stephen Ward, an associate
professor at UBCs School of Journalism.
Most reporters played the part of the home-patriotic
press. They abided by the pool rules, they did not venture
outside of certain zones, they got their information from
military briefings complete with flashy videos.
As tensions between Iraq and the United States escalate,
Ward knows the unique challenges war correspondents could
face. Based in London in the early 1990s as the only staff
reporter in Europe for Canadian Press, he covered the Gulf
War as well as conflicts in Bosnia and Northern Ireland.
Truth in war is difficult, he says. Youre
only scratching the surface. Almost all your sources are manipulating
you. You have to get outside of the militarys protection
and message. You must seek the truth from all sources and
Its a disservice to your reader if you try to
give them one truth about such a complex situation. There
isnt one good guy or one bad guy. You have to talk about
the causes, the impact, the dispositions on both sides of
When Ward went to London in 1990, he thought he would write
stories about strange clerics in small towns.
Instead he found himself in such places as Qatar (a country
in the Persian Gulf) and Sarajevo, moving from hotel to hotel,
fighting illness and a lack of medicine and food (a
jar of peanut butter and crackers will keep you alive for
three days) and dodging sniper fire.
I remember hitting the ground while snipers were all
around us. I didnt know what was going on. One officer
said to me, Dont worry. If you can hear the bullets
going by, youre alright. You dont hear the bullets
when they hit you.
To prepare for assignments, Ward read as much as possible
about the country and cultures in question and established
sources -- embassy contacts, translators, guides. Once in
the field, he had to master both logistics and the fine art
of how to sweet talk nervous border guards and
figure out how to get into a country without arousing
suspicions of the authorities.
It takes an ability to survive and to think critically,
Ward says of the unusual job. You need proper gear (flak
jacket, helmet, biological war suit), some training in how
to survive under fire,
physical stamina; you need to be prepared to write and report
continually; a strong stomach; you have to be impervious to
time zones; you need to doggedly keep after the story; there
is also an extraordinary element of courage required and a
desire and concern about the culture youre reporting
So many reporters bring Canada along and operate with
Canadian assumptions. But being a journalist in the field
is really like being an anthropologist. You have to understand
with cultural sensitivity the cultural knowledge, the history
and the context of the country youre in.
Since 9/11 and the Pentagon restrictions that followed,
Ward says the American media have struggled to remain independent
and critical. He is concerned what access to information reporters
will have if war breaks out in Iraq and also about the impact
of technology on coverage.
Now you have a blackberry [wireless handheld communication
device] in the field. Youre never far away from the
home office. You can lose control of what you think the story
is when your bosses are telling you what others are covering.
You get this herd journalism -- if CNN is doing it this way,
we all have to do it.
Ward believes reporters must fight against this mentality
and strive, as part of the global media, to explain the world
international audience, give insight into the options ahead
and be a watchdog of how governments are handling a crisis.
He recalls being in southern Turkey observing Canadian
military medics attend to the wounded after the Bosnian crisis.
Here I am with a note pad and a tape recorder. And Im
thinking, What am I doing? Well, Im not a doctor.
I will only make things worse if I try. Then a woman
put a piece of paper in my hand. When it was translated, it
said, Thank you for being here. Please tell the world
Despite the hardships, restrictions, ethical dilemmas and
constant danger, Ward says nothing compares to being a war
It will change your whole view of life, he says.
As a Canadian, you dont see bodies in the streets
and villages blown apart. You dont see the intensity
of anger of an invading army. To see a sophisticated civilization
collapse, to see the xenophobic barbaric actions of people,
you realize it can happen anywhere. As a Canadian, I need
to treasure freedom and democracy and not take it for granted.