[Montréal, Québec, Canada 27°C] Since my visit to Southern Sudan last spring—and with the intention of returning for next year’s election in April—I’ve been reading about working as a journalist in conflict situations and reading journalistic stories written from conflict zones.
Some great books I’ve read lately are written by journalists covering areas of political instability and war as foreign correspondents. One of my favourites is Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun. Kapuscinski was Poland’s first and only foreign correspondent in the 1950’s. He was sent to cover Africa as the continent unraveled from colonialism, providing readers with insight into a continent where he witnessed firsthand more than 38 revolutions. His knowledge of this period in Africa’s history—and the journalistic integrity of his descriptions of events and people he meets—are well recognized. After reading his republished articles, I felt as though I sat with him in the small plane that brought him to Zanzibar as the first international correspondent to set foot on the island after the coup in d’état in 1963.
I’m now reading The Granta Book of Reportage that collects twelve of “the finest pieces of reportage Granta has published. The book’s first article is penned by Kapuscinski about the war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 that stemmed from, among other things, the series between the two national football (soccer) teams to qualify for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. The “soccer war” flared up with little notice, lasted just 100 hours but left 6,000 dead and over 12,000 wounded.
The second chapter in the book is James Fenton’s “The Fall of Saigon”. Fenton’s account of having “taken a ride on the first tank [National Liberation Front] to reach the palace, but it was not until several weeks later that [he] realized that this was the case.” Before dismounting the tank, he wasn’t sure if he would be arrested.
Fenton writes about the development of a theory of journalism that he hoped to build into a school of journalistic practice:
I developed a theory of journalism, on which I hoped to build a school. It was to be called the Crepuscular School and the rules were simple: believe nothing that you are told before dusk. Instead of diplomatic sources, or high-ranking sources, or ‘usually reliable sources’, the crepuscular journalists would refer to ‘sources interviewed last night’, ‘sources at midnight’, or best of all ‘sources contacted a few hours before dawn’. It would be considered unprofessional to interview the general on the morning of the battle. You would wait till the evening, when he was reviewing the cost. Crepuscular stories would cut out the bravado. Their prominent colourings would be melancholy and gloom. In this they would reflect more accurately the mood of the times.” (p.47-48)
I’ll keep this in mind when I go back to Southern Sudan for next year’s national elections. I’ll make a point of meeting with people late into the night to discuss the day’s events. Fenton continues 30 or so pages further about the dilemma between writing and filing as many stories as possible when the news is hot, and being on the ground to actually see what is happening.
For the reporter, there was a choice: go out and see what was happening, or write about it. It was a cruel choice, but it was clear that the lines would soon either be jammed or go down altogether. For a stringer, the burden of the choice is even greater, since it is during such moments that he earns the fat off which he has to live during the lean years. The first two laws of stringing are: the more you file the more you earn; and, the more you file the less you learn. I mention this because, throughout the remainder of the day and in the days that followed, all my reactions were underscored by a worry about getting the thing written up, and not just written up but sent out. Whereas all my instincts were not to write at all. In the end the instincts won, hands down.” (p.77-78)
I recently came across a feature length documentary, Reporter, about two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Nicholas Kristof who writes for the New York Times. The film is directed, edited and photographed by Daniel Metzgar. I haven’t seen the film yet but according to its description, “The film puts the viewer in Kristof’s pocket, revealing the man and his methods, and just how and why real reporting is vital to our democracy, our world-awareness […] But REPORTER has a second agenda. By tracking a newsman, we track his news.”
RESOURCES ABOUT CONFLICT JOURNALISM:
– Reporting for Change: A Handbook for Local Journalists in Crisis Areas (.pdf); Introduction, Why be a Journalist?, International Standards, Story Structure, Sourcing, Interview Techniques, Use of Detail, Quotations, News Judgement & Story types, House Styles, Introduction to Libel, Peace Reporting, Human Rights & Journalism, Economic Journalism, Journalism Safety, Reporting for IWPR Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).
– Alertnet’s suite of online tutorials designed to give journalists the edge when covering humanitarian emergencies.
Below is a short video, Nicholas Kristof On Covering a Global Crisis.