By reporting from far-flung war-torn corners of the world, GlobalPost is already known for telling stories that give voice to individual experiences in conflict zones — now they are looking to do more, by hiring an experienced conflict correspondent. For a period of sixteen months, this journalist will work to get first-hand stories from some of the world’s most violent places.
So what does it mean to do conflict reporting? Why is it important, and what commodities do conflict journalists need in order to do their jobs? We asked Patrick Winn, GlobalPost's Senior Correspondent, to talk to us about it; he wrote to us from Bangkok.
“Conflict reporter.” The words evoke journalists crouching next to bullet-pocked walls, shrapnel whizzing overheard, as they breathlessly narrate an attack.
Sometimes conflict reporters do that. But they’re more likely to be making nice with strange men who say they can maybe get them to the action, or at least lead them to refugees who’ve witnessed horrific violence.
Twenty-first-century combat is a different beast from last century’s major wars. It is, in many ways, far messier and harder to untangle. It’s often waged by militants who don’t wear uniforms and avoid squaring up on traditional battlefields. They bring conflict to nightclubs and tea shops. They pair old-school ambitions, like conquering territory, with new-school tactics: demoralizing the enemy with gory photos on Twitter.
Most people flee war. Those rushing in have their own agendas. It usually doesn’t include sheltering, feeding, and watching the backs of reporters. Covering it is not a daily thrill ride. It’s hard work, an arduous exercise in logistics.
Combat coverage is also a massive head game. Journalists, as we know well, are increasingly finding ourselves in the crosshairs. You have to know which tip-offs to follow, which are spin, and which could be a trap, costing you your career or even your life. Meanwhile, many correspondents risking themselves to bring us these vital stories are paid less than a Foot Locker cashier.
For the record: I’m not a “conflict reporter” of the caliber that routinely wades into nightmares unfolding in places such as Syria or the Central African Republic. But in my seven years as a Southeast Asia correspondent, I’ve covered guerrilla rebellions in Myanmar, an Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s deep south, and bloody confrontations in Bangkok where both sides opened fire.
Conflict reporters are often called “fearless” or “brave,” and those are excellent qualities. But neither can make up for the two most important commodities in conflict journalism: time and money. Both are hard to come by from modern media outlets, which like news produced fast and cheap, regardless of what the public needs.
Producing that series on Thailand’s insurgency, called “Red Light Jihad,” was neither fast nor cheap. It required lots of time to gain the trust of separatists, militias, sex workers, and others hardwired to distrust strangers — particularly those carrying big cameras and asking hard questions.
But money is even more crucial. Conflict ratchets up the cost of everything, especially services journalists need, such as hotels, translators, and drivers. You may find drivers willing to take you through a war zone, but they’ll demand (and deserve) a premium.
More expensive still are “fixers,” the unsung heroes of journalism, who open doors to key players. Bearing witness to conflict can win awards for journalists; it only brings fixers close to danger, with no promise of grandeur. Yet when trouble strikes in the field — harassment by police and militias, for example — journalists often rely on fixers to pull strings and make the problem go away. Fixers have prevented me from getting arrested in Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The good ones are not cheap.
Without solid conflict reporting, we’re left with propaganda. Rather than illuminating the world’s conflicts, major broadcasters often prefer to broadcast political gossip, or focus the lens on celebrity anchors and misleading good-versus-evil narratives.
Conflict reporters are the world’s eyes and ears on the battlefield. Their job is to remind of war’s ugliness, to go beyond the propaganda and show us what's really happening where bombs strike and bullets fly. They’re the ones who can call out atrocities and shame those who perpetrate them.
The world’s conflicts are only getting messier and we need conflict reporters more than ever. Let’s make sure we keep funding them to make it to the front lines and tell the world what they’ve seen.