Reporting on war-torn territories

Every year countless journalists experience violence, imprisonment and censorship while trying to report abroad. Fred Kuntz, vice president of public affairs for the Centre for International Governance Innovation, expressed this difficult situation of muzzled media while introducing a panel of journalists to discuss the issue.

The Waterloo Region Record editor-in-chief Lynn Haddrall moderated the panel on June 22 which included the host of CBC’s The Current Anna Maria Tremonti, foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail Sonia Verma, national security reporter for the Toronto Star Michelle Shephard and Carleton University associate professor in journalism Allan Thompson.

“The golden rule of journalism has been not to become part of the story,” said Shephard, also noting the shift recently as there have been several incidents of reporters being detained in Libya, including a New York Times reporter that was sexually assaulted.

Commenting on the problem, Verma said that governments abroad detain journalists in attempt to prevent stories from getting out.

Having reported from Bosnia for the CBC in the late 1990s, Tremonti said, “The biggest hassle of getting a story is getting there.”

Tremonti explained the challenges she faced in filing stories at the time, needing a satellite phone the size of an umbrella. The ability to report abroad has since changed drastically, as she noted you can now easily call someone in Afghanistan with a cell phone.

With all the challenges involved in getting Canadian journalists to remote locations, the discussion turned to the even greater difficulties faced by reporters from other countries, as well as the citizen journalists who tweet, photograph and video record breaking news from the conflict zones they live in.

Spending years reporting abroad for the Toronto Star, Thompson reflected “how humbled you feel when you meet the journalists that live and breathe in these societies we drop in on.”

Thompson went on to say that not only does western media need to embrace citizen journalists, but also support local journalists in foreign regions by hiring them to report rather than sending Canadians. “We should be making better use of those journalists,” he stated.

For reporting on other countries while staying in Canada, Tremonti said she has utilized their local journalists. “For me in radio, it’s about getting them on the phone because they know [the issues].”

While the panel shared the idea that news organizations should use local reporters in foreign regions, they also noted the extreme risks those individuals take in order to deliver news.

“We have a ticket out, they have no ticket out… A lot of them not only risk their lives, but give their lives,” said Tremonti. Those reporters do not receive the same training that the panel discussed having before going to regions in conflict.

The combination of citizen and foreign journalists and the growing use of social media, Verma, in talking about major media organizations, said, “We are no longer the gatekeepers of the news.”

The information that can now be accessed and shared with new technology posses problems of its own. As journalists try to juggle all the different types of media while reporting, Thompson asked, “How can you do that and still be thoughtful and analytical?”

The other panelists noted that the issue lies with ensuring new media is effectively utilized. “The technology isn’t making us stupid,” said Tremonti.

“I can develop context in a much more effective way because of these tools,” Verma added, having found use for social media such as Twitter and blogs in her reporting. “It adds a lot to people’s understanding of what’s going on.”

Despite all the hardships reporters face in covering news around the world, Verma remained optimistic about their role, admitting, “I think it’s the best job in the world.”