Opinion: I was wrong about war reporters



Journalists report as forensic workers line up the corpses of civilians collected from a mass grave in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, April 8, 2022.

Maybe it’s my distaste for legacy media, or my occasional urge to be a contrarian. But for a long time, I didn’t think traveling war reporters were necessary anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, I respect the bravery of anybody willing to risk their lives for the sake of journalism. I don’t think I’m built for it.

But in today’s day and age, it’s easier than ever to follow international news. Nations in turmoil have their own reporters on the front lines, whether they choose to be or not. Social media is filled with primary accounts of conflict around the world. I follow Ukrainian soldiers on TikTok; they post these daily.

I was under the impression that corporate media outlets sending out their own correspondents was reflective of western hubris and the egos of the reporters. I didn’t think it was worth risking the lives of the journalists and those around them to cover stories that weren’t necessarily theirs to tell.

After a few conversations with people more knowledgeable than myself, I think I was wrong.

Russia continues to release propaganda surrounding their occupation of Ukraine. Ed Lawler, adjunct journalism professor at DePaul University, explains how this proves the necessity of war reporting.

“There’s a risk to the truth,” Lawler said. “I think back to the war correspondents of the Vietnam War, and many took a very critical view of what was going on there. They sort of blew the lid off the tragedy and the farce of the war in Vietnam.”

Without journalists on the ground in these combat scenarios, we’re left to rely on accounts from domestic media of the nations involved. This coverage can often be biased at best, or misleading at worst, in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Despite the enormous risks that war journalists, their crews, and any locals tasked with guiding the team through the chaos take, it’s important for these wars to be documented by the rest of the world to know what’s really happening.

“It is worth going to see some of the sites where these atrocities have taken place, and maybe giving voice to the people of Ukraine,” Lawler said. “Maybe getting close to the scene can not only dramatize the atrocities but dramatize the horror of war over there. Do you learn that from staying stateside?”

Somehow, I didn’t consider this, despite so much of my own foreign policy perspective being based on the work of war reporters. Had I not seen the brutality of the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan through the lens of war journalists, I may have never questioned our involvement in the region.

The risks are still enormous for those involved, however.

“There’s obviously the physical risks,” said writer and artist Dan O’Brien. “And then of course there’s the psychological, emotional, mental risk.”

O’Brien has a longstanding friendship with renowned conflict journalist Paul Watson. He’s collaborated with Watson on numerous projects depicting the trials and tribulations of war reporting.

Watson first started facing the psychological risks of war reporting during his time covering the Rwandan Genocide.

“He’s been dealing with the repercussions ever since,” O’Brien said. “He and I had talked a lot about how many war reporters will claim that they’re not traumatized by their work. But you wonder just how forthright they’re going to be in public about this sort of thing.”

“Paul has seen his colleagues get hurt. He’s also often felt he had to keep his psychological struggles secret because colleagues wouldn’t want to work with him,” O’Brien continued.

Through his relationship with Watson, O’Brien understands the risks of his line of work. But he also understands its necessity.

“If we don’t have journalists covering these conflicts, then the wider public is left with only propaganda, rumor, myth,” O’Brien said. “And that can only play into the hands of the powerful, no matter what side of the conflict. You need people at least attempting to communicate fact and journalistic truth.”

Social media has made it easier for the public to see the firsthand horrors of war, without correspondents having to capture their own sources to share with their audiences. It’s a big reason why I initially thought these reporters weren’t necessary anymore.

But with the barrier of entry to posting on social media being so low, it’s easier than ever to be fooled by fake or misattributed footage. I didn’t understand just how rampant this issue was until I was fooled by a video from a war simulation video game that was making rounds on Facebook as legitimate air combat between Russian and Ukrainian pilots.

Even real social media footage has to be consumed with a grain of salt, as it generally lacks the context and fact-checking that established news organizations strive to include.

“The people who are doing the filming, or the reporting, they’re not trained journalists,” Lawler said. “They may not know what to look for, they may be prone to misinformation. So I think that speaks to the value of putting trained journalists on, or near, the scene of battle.”

Social media is an excellent tool to help tell these stories. Relying solely on unverified primary source material is a slippery slope, though.

I’ve been taking the work of war reporters for granted for too long, despite consuming so much of their content. They’re not just adrenaline junkies seeking the next big thrill. They’re an important part of our global media landscape in a time where a surplus of information makes it easy to get confused.