Megan Stack On War Reporting in Lebanon

The Los Angeles Times' Cairo bureau chief discusses the calculated risks inherent in covering the war, and getting close to Hezbollah rocket fire more often than she'd like.

Megan K. Stack has covered the war in Lebanon for the Los Angeles Times for the past several weeks, describing the conflict’s costs for Lebanese civilians in compelling and even poetic ways. Stack, 30, joined the Times in 2001, serving as the paper’s Houston bureau chief and Jerusalem correspondent before becoming its Cairo bureau chief three years ago. Previously, she reported from Texas for the Associated Press.

Edward B. Colby: What’s the hardest part of this war to cover?

Megan K. Stack: Basically, it’s a very emotionally rigorous war to cover, because especially down here in the south, we’ve seen a lot of people injured and killed, apparently civilians, and a lot of children who have been wounded or have been killed. And we’ve been going to hospitals and interviewing survivors, people who’ve lost their children. We’ve seen a lot of dead bodies, and that’s been very emotionally wrenching.

That’s one thing. Another thing is that it’s been very unsure — I think there’s been a lot of insecurity among the reporters who have been covering the south, because we’re not really sure how safe it is, we’re not sure if we can be on the roads … there’s a lot of calculated risk, there’s a lot of trying to figure out whether you can be on the road to get to a certain village or a certain town to do a story, because of course we’re here south of the Litani River after Israel has warned everybody to get north of the Litani River if they’re civilian. So driving around, we have no real guarantee that we won’t be targeted, and so therefore you think very hard and very carefully before you drive anywhere, or leave Tyre, which is where I’m staying now.

EBC: One of your stories last week described U.N. personnel scrambling to get into bomb shelters — how many times have you had to take cover like that? And on the roads have you had any other close calls?

MKS: No, I’ve been very lucky. I haven’t had any close calls on the road. It’s true that when I was in Naqoura, which is very close to the Israeli border, we were inside the U.N. headquarters there — the U.N. peacekeeping force headquarters — and Hezbollah started firing rockets into Israel very close to the gate, to the front gate. So we all had to hide in bomb shelters because of course when there’s outgoing rocket fire you’re risking the possibility, the strong possibility of incoming attacks from Israel. So that happened, and we’ve had a few things like that. I have to say, I’ve been close to Hezbollah firing rockets more often than I’d like to have been. And on the roads, of course, you see civilian cars that have been bombed, and you see craters on the road, so you’re just sort of holding your breath the whole time and hoping that nothing comes down while you’re there.

EBC: Reading your Qana story, it seems like it must be overwhelming to be there and to see so much death and despair. So how do you report in that situation — do you just shut yourself down emotionally and tell yourself to deal with what you’ve seen later?

MKS: Well, I think sometimes the writing of it can be cathartic. I think sometimes it helps just to come back to the hotel room and sit down and write up some things that you’ve seen — it helps you process them as you’re going along. But it is a very emotional story. I think that you have to be careful of that, I think that you have to talk to your editors and talk to people who aren’t here to get your perspective broadened. But to a certain extent you just do the best you can day to day, and try to take what happens that day and move on to the next day without letting it slow you down or stop you from working. Because you do have to keep working, you can’t freeze up.

EBC: How much do you feel Hezbollah’s presence during the course of your reporting through the day? Do you sense that you’re being watched?

MKS: I wouldn’t say that I feel that we’re being watched, although at times I have felt that. I feel that they’re around. I feel that they see us much better than we can see them, and sometimes we have come across them, I’ve come across them — some Hezbollah fighters, some of the militiamen, [and] I’ve been able to chat with them.

But you see, of course, the thing about Hezbollah that I think is often misunderstood is that it’s not just an army, it’s a massive political party and it’s a massive social welfare network. So when you think about Hezbollah, you kind of think of them on different planes. I mean, you see Hezbollah security officials, for example, who have walkie-talkies and tend to go around on motor scooters, and you see Hezbollah clerics, and you see Hezbollah fighters, who when I’ve gone close to the border, I’ve come across some Hezbollah fighters. But of course they’re not all the same thing. But — and I have to say — they haven’t really interfered with my work, although I’ve heard stories that other journalists have told of being bothered by Hezbollah in one capacity or the other.

EBC: This year you’ve covered the sinking of a huge Egyptian ferry, the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra and its aftermath, and abductions in Iraq. How did working on those stories prepare you to cover the Lebanon conflict?

MKS: Well, I think the most helpful thing in preparing to cover the Lebanon conflict was actually covering Lebanon, and the work that I’ve done here in Lebanon in the past, so that I didn’t come in cold to this conflict — that I had spent a lot of time here before, and traveled around the country, and covered other kinds of stories here. I covered the assassination of Rafik Hariri last year, and the massive protests, and the withdrawal of the Syrian troops. And I’ve dealt with Hezbollah before, so none of that was new material, so that really did help. But I think covering the Middle East, you do probably get more death and destruction than perhaps other beats. And so I think the years of that do help prepare you for this kind of a story.

EBC: In your Lebanon stories you’ve often been able to capture detailed and evocative public vignettes — a mass burial in Tyre, say, or residents reacting to the flattening of an apartment building. Is that kind of immediacy what you wish you could get reporting in Iraq these days?

MKS: I think yes … my own opinion about war reporting is that it’s sometimes at its strongest when it’s at its most personal and close-focused, when you can just give people an idea of what’s happened on one street, and what’s happened to one person — that that’s much more comprehensible than trying to paint a big picture, which we also try to do, but I think sometimes the most effective things are what you’ve witnessed yourself, or what you’ve been able to hear from other people. And I think in Iraq we are still able to do that to a certain extent, but we’re certainly not able to do that as well as we could three years ago by any stretch of the imagination. But there is a real sense of confinement in the Baghdad reporting now, and I think that it makes the public suffer.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.