January 12, 2010

Beyond Adrenaline

Beyond Adrenaline: Death-defying stories and hair-raising ethical dilemmas from high-risk journalists.

Our August THINK{drinks} panel focused on journalists whose stories demand that they risk great physical danger, whether it is covering a war or working as a prison guard. If you look back on the war reporting of journalists such as Ernie Pyle or George Orwell, you’ll see that these writers almost never put themselves in their stories. But today, personal memoirs of adventure and risk in dangerous places have become a hot-selling genre. Some would argue that the stories often focus too much on the writer’s personal risk-taking prowess and too little on the story they are covering. Does it detract from the journalism if a journalist focuses on their own risk over that of others? Are today’s high-risk journalists doing it for the reader or to satisfy a personal desire? What are some of the most difficult ethical dilemmas they have faced on assignment, and when is an assignment too risky?

Our panelists were Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and magazine journalist covering war, mostly for Vanity Fair; Ted Conover, author of New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing; Stacy Sullivan, whose articles on Kosovo have appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, and other publications; and Teun Voeten, a photojournalist covering conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Rwanda, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Haiti and Columbia. Our moderator was Mark Dennis, who has covered wars and conflict zones for Newsweek in Kosovo, Algeria, Chechnya, Northern Iraq, the Gulf, Sudan, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine.

PART ONE: What drives you to take these kinds of risks?

MARK DENNIS: What drove you to go to the front lines in Afghanistan last fall?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I went to write about Ahmad Shah Masud, who is the main opposition leader against the Taliban. He was the hero of the Afghan resistance against the Soviets. He is a real military genius, and the Taliban, who vastly outnumber him, are having the same problem that the Soviets have with him. I went there for a number of reasons. Matsud himself is a very compelling character, and the country is very beautiful. As far as to going to the front lines and ducking bullets, I’m really doing it for myself. The article is not going to benefit that much from it. You understand a situation much better by interviewing people in a refugee camp. That’s really the larger tragedy that you’re writing about, and it became very important for me to make a distinction between personal experience and information. In the trenches I was amazed at how quickly I dropped all pretenses of bravery, nobility, and concern for the Afghans. You go into extreme survival mode. If it’s just a bunch of adult men in a trench getting shelled, every single one of them is thinking: I hope it’s someone else and not me. It’s ugly, but it’s true.

MARK DENNIS: Ted Conover just finished a book about prison life. What drove you to go work as a prison guard?

TED CONOVER: I think participating in the life of a group of people in order to better explain their situation can add volumes beyond what you could simply get through an interview. It’s not always appropriate, and I think secrecy in pursuit of participation is very seldom appropriate. But it struck me that prison in particular is a subject we know about mainly through books by inmates or TV shows and movies that rehash familiar stereotypes about prison guards. I think Sebastian and I both want to know what certain experiences are like and what extremity feels like. I also think you can perform a service by witnessing. I don’t actually think what I did was as dangerous as going to a war, even though prison in this country feels like a war. I think for most people involved, it is a sort of domestic war. But correction officers don’t expect to get maimed, to lose eyes and their arms. I didn’t. I don’t think my wife expected I’d come home in several pieces.

MARK DENNIS: Photographers often have to take the biggest risks. I wonder if Teun could reflect a bit on what a photographer has to go through?

TEUN VEUTEN: I first want to comment on the term “war photographer.” I think the term is a little bit too heroic. I can’t deny I have photographed in places that have been fucked up, but I don’t consider myself a “war photographer.” I’m just a photojournalist. I rarely see combat. I went a couple of times to the front lines, but basically there is not much going on there. Sometimes there is action, like shooting and shelling. I always get very nervous. Most journalists I talk to don’t like to talk too much about their motives to do this work. Some journalists have the pretension of making the world a better place by exposing injustice. We are not making the world a better place, but at least we are exposing the bad stuff. We have some very selfish motives and some very noble motives. Basically if I meet a war photographer who says “I risk my life to save the world,” I think he’s a bullshitter.

PART TWO: What kinds of ethical dilemmas have you faced?

MARK DENNIS: War reporting is difficult because for people involved in the war there is a lot of risk in talking to reporters. How do you deal with this?

STACY SULLIVAN: I covered Kosovo since it started in 1998. I covered Bosnia before that. I was used to the Serbs lying about what they had done to cover things up. I got to Kosovo and everybody lied. You couldn’t trust what anybody said. One time a reporter for NPR did a story about this woman who said that all of her sisters had been killed by the Serb para militaries. A few weeks after the war she went and found this woman again, and she was sitting around having coffee with her sisters. The Albanian Ministry of Information will issue a press release saying the oppressive Serbian terrorist forces slaughtered 12 civilians in the same area. All you know is that something happened there, but you wouldn’t know which side had done it. To report a story like that, I had to rely on my hunch. I didn’t do a lot of spot news reporting. I couldn’t do daily reporting. I didn’t know what to believe unless I saw it myself or had a source I knew was reliable.

MARK DENNIS: Ted, what kinds of ethical dilemmas did you face as a prison guard?

TED CONOVER: When I was working in the prison an officer asked me to keep an inmate locked in his cell when he deserved to come out. A lot of police officers have this experience. They see fellow officers doing something they shouldn’t, and they have to decide what to do about it. Law enforcement is full of those dilemmas, and prison work is no exception. On that occasion, I did what the officer said. I was just two weeks out of the academy. I tried to atone for the mistake by writing about it, but on that day I did the wrong thing. Participation sometimes can involve you. This is certainly true with undercover police officers, who sometimes break the law in order to curry the favor of the people they want to befriend. I think participation involves all kinds of perils, moral and otherwise.

PART THREE: When does using first person go too far?

MARK DENNIS: It can be quite controversial to put oneself in a story, and to be blunt, some people have questioned whether it was appropriate of Vanity Fair to run of a photograph of Sebastian in the war trenches. It seemed to make the story more about Sebastian Junger than about the war that he was writing about.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: That photo was a decision by the Vanity Fair photo department and it had nothing to do with me. I try to use first person very little. The article I wrote about Afghanistan probably had the most first person in there, and probably not by coincidence it was the most intense journalistic experience I had. I thought if I’m going to write for Americans about Afghans, the Americans reading my stories actually need an ambassador — me — to explain what things are like for me. I had an insight into the average person’s experience when they’re trapped in a war. They want nothing to do with it. It’s miserable. It’s as fun as a car accident. If you’re sent on assignment by a magazine to write about a country at war — or anything — you’re a vehicle for that story. That’s it. God forbid that story becomes a vehicle for you to display your prowess or your bravery. That’s not journalism anymore.

MARK DENNIS: Stacy, what do you think?

STACY SULLIVAN: Journalists who write for newspapers have been taught never to use the first person, and it’s not true journalism if you do use it. I was really hesitant to very use the first person, but like Sebastian I find that it’s the most natural way to tell a story. If you went to Afghanistan and you were visiting your friend, you wouldn’t take yourself out of it. You wouldn’t do that awkward thing the New York Times always does and say “this reporter.” But you have to be careful to not make the story about yourself.

TED CONOVER: We’ve all read stories where we all learned too much about the writer and not enough about the subject. That’s obviously a problem. A bunch of people have commented that they wanted to know a lot more about how the prison work affected my family life. After you’ve realized that you’re going to write a book that the whole world is going to be able to buy and read it, you realize there’s some things you don’t want to tell. I think you draw certain lines of privacy.

MARK DENNIS: Is real reporting becoming a relic?

TEUN VEUTEN: There will always be a demand for serious reportage and photographers. It’s getting harder and harder to get those jobs and now you have to be more inventive. A lot of media outlets don’t like in-depth foreign stories. Sometimes you can have exhibitions, and you can work with websites. But there is always a demand for serious reportage. Sometimes I feel like I am doing some kind of ancient art.

TED CONOVER: When my book came out, the publisher was looking for ways to publicize it, and put me in touch with a couple of TV news magazines. They always asked me if I had any video of me inside the prison. I appreciate the need for video, but the fact that there is no video is the reason I have a book. I couldn’t have done what I have done with video. There are places the camera can’t take you. Camera crews ruin a lot of stories.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I think video and print really complement each other. I don’t think it’s a battle and one is going to win out and the other will disappear. When I do articles, I now take a hi-8 video camera with me because sometimes I get calls from TV networks like CNN that want to have me on to talk about my experience. If I have a video to give them about the things that I saw, it enhances the segment. If I’m on CNN, roughly a million times more people know about my article than would know if it was just in a magazine. People actually go back and read the article.

PART FOUR: Audience questions

Q: How do you maintain objectivity in the face of threats to your life?

STACY SULLIVAN: I lived in Sarajevo for two years. The city was surrounded by mountains, and there were these men in the hills, the Serbs, who were lobbing shells into the city every day. I’m not going to write a balanced story about both sides fighting a war. I’m going to write a story about these bastards up in the hills lobbing shells into a city full of civilians. In that situation, I empathized with the people in the city. I didn’t feel the need to be objective, I felt the need to write about the truth. I don’t think they would complain if I wrote about the truth. As far as objectivity, I did feel the need to tell the Serb half of the story, but every time I tried to go into the Serb half of Bosnia, I was prohibited from doing so. The one time I did try to go over and ask to get a press pass, I was arrested and held in jail overnight. So I cannot report the Serb side of the story. My side of the Serb story is that shells are falling into the city every day by Serbs, and I go over and try to talk to them and I get put in jail for the night. You write about what you know and you remain factual and you try to be as truthful as you can. That doesn’t always mean being objective and giving equal play to both sides. Sometimes you just can’t and sometimes it’s important not necessarily to be objective, but to get to what is happening on the ground.