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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 2 | Feb. 6, 2003

Have Flak Jacket, Will Travel

A war correspondent’s view from the trenches

By Erica Smishek

The Persian Gulf War brought us the Scud Stud, CNN’s 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 UBC’s 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. “You’re only scratching the surface. Almost all your sources are manipulating you. You have to get outside of the military’s protection and message. You must seek the truth from all sources and act independently.

“It’s a disservice to your reader if you try to give them one truth about such a complex situation. There isn’t one good guy or one bad guy. You have to talk about the causes, the impact, the dispositions on both sides of the conflict.”

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 didn’t know what was going on. One officer said to me, ‘Don’t worry. If you can hear the bullets going by, you’re alright. You don’t 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 you’re reporting on.

“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 you’re 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. You’re 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 to an
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 I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing? Well, I’m 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 about this.’”

Despite the hardships, restrictions, ethical dilemmas and constant danger, Ward says nothing compares to being a war correspondent.

“It will change your whole view of life,” he says. “As a Canadian, you don’t see bodies in the streets and villages blown apart. You don’t 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.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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