There have been a lot of changes in our field lately. Can we now single out war journalism?
I do not think so, especially now that all the divisions between the genres have faded. There used to be war journalists, or war correspondents, who only covered issues connected with war, but this is no longer the case. Especially when war has come very close to us. You may only be covering cultural news, but when you find yourself in the middle of a terrorist attack, you instantly become a war journalist. So, I think the margin [between the fields] has been completely erased.
Speaking of skills, is there anything you need to be particularly aware of and remember when covering a war?
From my experience, the first thing you need is a self-assessment--you have to know how much you can do. Of course, it’s often difficult to evaluate yourself critically and to admit that you will not be able to work in a conflict zone. There is a kind of belief among journalists that anyone who covers war is a hero and the greatest professional, though this is not true in many cases.
Sometimes it's easier to work in war because there is always something going on, and you have the news ready, right in front of you. It’s way more difficult to get information in peacetime.
I was coordinating coverage in Ukraine when I got a call from our very experienced team, which was covering the ongoing hostilities in eastern Ukraine. They told me they could no longer stay there because they feared for their lives. I asked them to return immediately. No one ever criticized their behavior. On the contrary, this is what I call professionalism!
Probably, every journalist wants to have experience covering conflict and feel the adrenaline it brings, but it’s more important to be aware of your abilities. You have to know if you are ready.
Do you mean emotional readiness?
Both physical and emotional. You want to be at the epicenter of events, and you may even envy your colleagues who are there. I experienced it when I was a beginner, and I had to cover the Chechen war. Now I realize that it is very important to understand whether you can really do it or not. If you aren’t ready on an emotional level, it’s even more professional to admit that you can no longer cover that war. It’s normal. If you don’t admit, you risk yourself, you fail in your job, and you let your team down.
I also had a case when I was coordinating work in Ukraine when I got a call from our very experienced team, which was covering the ongoing hostilities in eastern Ukraine. They told me they could no longer stay there because they feared for their lives. The first thing I did I asked them to return. No one ever criticized their behavior. On the contrary, this is what I call professionalism!
Also, verifying information is a huge challenge for journalists working in conflict zones. It’s easy to become a propaganda weapon. During the war, you often hear a lot of stories from a lot of sources: officials, eyewitnesses, social networks… So it’s easy to be manipulated. One of the main challenges for me, both before and now – especially with the development of technology – is to be able to verify a story in a short time, to only use reliable information, and not to be oriented on sensationalism. In that case, you may not be the first, but verified facts should be your priority.
Is verification the most important even when you have an exclusive story?
Of course! It’s important to protect yourself from becoming a tool of propaganda, or a victim of manipulation. In times of conflict, each group has its own interests, and the only thing you have to defend yourself is verified information.
What happens when you cover the war in your country? I understand that if you are a professional, it shouldn’t matter whose war you’re covering, but how simple is that? In that case, it’s probably even easier to become a victim of propaganda…
If we talk about the emotional part, of course, it's hard. It's difficult to cover any war, but the fact that your country is in danger and the enemy is so close to you, your family, and your loved ones, it is a triple horror, which we probably all experienced in 2008.
But from a professional point of view, you still have to work as if it were any other conflict. And you should always act based on the same professional standards, where verified information and a reliable source are key.
The war in Chechnya was the first war I covered. I faced a lot of challenges, I was inexperienced, and I thought that if I did not run to the frontline everyone would think that I wasn’t ready to do this job. Many people still have this dilemma about running to the frontline without thinking of the consequences.
Do you think the Georgian media was credible and critical in its coverage of the war in 2008?
I don’t know, I can’t judge. I think it’s wrong to evaluate the work of my colleagues. It is very difficult to report on war, and therefore it is likely there will be mistakes.
When recalling that period, we often hear the word ‘patriotism’...
Let's talk about the challenges journalists face while working in a war zone. From your own experience, what is the most difficult thing to do, and what do you remember most vividly?
There are so many of them. Planning in advance is the most important thing to do. You should know what you are doing exactly, and you should never go anywhere without knowing where the road leads to.
The war in Chechnya was the first war I covered. I faced a lot of challenges, I was inexperienced, and I thought that if I did not run to the frontline everyone would think that I wasn’t capable to do this job. Many people still have this dilemma about running to the frontline without thinking of the consequences. You should always assess what it may bring or what you may lose. You have to understand that no news is worth a human life.
It’s hard to refuse an exclusive story, but some of the main difficulties in war journalism are to analyze all the nuances, not to lose your moral and professional ethics, and to know that human life is the priority.
You need to know the specifics of the place. Some time ago, my cameraman and I recalled how many silly things we did because we were just risking our lives.
There is also the dilemma of whether to publish something or not. In 2008, the Associated Press had exclusive footage of captured Georgian soldiers, but we could not release the photos because it could put soldiers in additional danger. The cameraman was so angry because he put his life in danger to get this exclusive footage, but there was something more important--the consequences it could have had.
You should also think about your respondents, right? Perhaps, your responsibility increases when it comes to the heroes of your story…
Of course! The main thing is not to tell lies--your respondent should know exactly where this information will go. Their lives should not be endangered because of your interests. Yes, it’s hard to refuse an exclusive story, but some of the main difficulties in war journalism are to analyze all the nuances, not to lose your moral and professional ethics, and to know that human life is the priority.
At the beginning of the conversation, you said that you can’t single out war journalism anymore, but is there anything that should be taught to those who cover the war?
Employees of Associated Press, like many of the world's leading media outlets, take hostile environment and first aid training course. Ex-servicemen teach us the rules of action in a critical situation as well as first aid basics. Of course, many things are forgotten, but when you find yourself in a critical situation, that dormant knowledge awakens. This information has been repeatedly used to cover demonstrations and hostilities. It is the basic knowledge that every journalist should have when he/she is in a conflict zone.
Learning from your mistakes is very dangerous during hostilities.
It is difficult for a journalist, especially an inexperienced one, to recognize a threat. That is why you need a producer or editor who will always be coordinating with you. Your editorial team should always support you, help you in planning, analyzing the possible threats, and acting accordingly.
The responsibility of the editorial office increases in a war situation.
Is it easier to be in the field?
It is easier for me to work in the field because it feels like you are responsible only for yourself. When you coordinate the coverage, you take on a huge responsibility for each person you assign. It is very tough.
And what happens when the war ends?
Then there is stress, which is not easy to deal with.
We have a special department at work to help you manage stress and overcome post-traumatic stress disorder if you need to.
In addition to professional difficulties, you face many other dilemmas while covering a conflict. For example, how should you behave when someone gets injured next to you? Should you stop filming and help the wounded? Will this endanger your film crew?
Stress is all the interviews you take in the conflict zone, and all the talks you have with the people who hope that your conversation will change something in their lives. I still remember the respondents I had years ago and that feeling of helplessness I had when I was talking to them, trying to give them hope while I was so desperately hopeless myself.