War reporting for amateurs

Should you just take off for a foreign country and hope to sell your work later?

I confess that I’ve been watching all the coverage of Amanda Lindhout’s book with a bit of chagrin. Lindhout, who traveled to Somalia as an aspiring journalist in 2008, was kidnapped along with her photographer companion and their guides. She spent 15 months in captivity before her family finally hired a private security firm and raised the ransom money. Later she collaborated with established journalist Sara Corbett—“we rented a really remote house in the Bahamas together and spent seven straight days in conversation”—to write a book about her ordeal. On Twitter she describes herself as an “adventurer,” but in much of the coverage, including a recent Today show appearance, she’s identified as a journalist.

“Why her and not me?” asks veteran journalist Robert Draper, who met Lindhout in a Mogadishu hotel before she was kidnapped, in an essay in ELLE. The answer seems pretty clear. She had traveled widely as a tourist but had zero institutional support and very little experience as a reporter.

As young journalists survey the professional landscape—the layoffs, the closure of foreign bureaus—just packing up and buying a plane ticket starts to seem like a viable option. As one guy wrote to me recently, “I am interested in getting to the Middle East as some sort of war correspondant [sic] or novice freelance frontline reporter. I believe I could find the connections with publishers to make the journey successful. What are some steps I could take to set up a trip and get a sponsorship loan on equipment in order to begin preparing for a deployment?”

Every single hard-bitten war correspondent has had to start somewhere. It’s just that more and more of them are trying to get that start without the support or backing of an established news organization and without the mentorship of an experienced international reporter.

There’s a right and a wrong way to throw yourself into the field as a war correspondent. Megan Greenwell, who reported from Iraq for The Washington Post, says, “The important thing (and maybe this sounds obvious) is to treat the preparation like a reporting assignment. A hard one. One of the smartest things my then-foreign editor, David Hoffman, did for people he was sending to Iraq was not giving us some guide to the country. When I asked him what I should bring and assorted questions like that, he shrugged and said, ‘Report it out.’ That forced me to talk to everyone who had been before, all of whom had different perspectives on every one of my questions, which was incredibly helpful.”

Sarah Stillman, who’s now a staff writer for The New Yorker, first went to Iraq in 2008 as a freelance correspondent for Truthdig. “When I look back at my pictures from my first trip, I was so ill-equipped,” she says. She ordered body armor from bulletproofme.com (seriously), interviewed dozens of people who had spent time on the ground in Iraq, got a fixer, and secured an embed.

“It was invaluable to do that research before I left, both in talking to reporters I knew who had spent a lot of time in Iraq and some friends who’d deployed there in the military,” she says. The reporter-friends introduced her to Iraqis she could trust, and the military contacts helped her get acquainted with jargon and procedures. Then there’s the need for some concrete safety training. For aspiring journalists who don’t have personal connections, she advises reaching out to groups like Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (the group Sebastian Junger founded after photojournalist Tim Hetherington was killed in the field), the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma.

“You see this paradox,” Stillman says, “where there’s this greater reliance on freelancers but fewer and fewer protections for them out in the field in very scary situations.” Journalists don’t just need to learn how to protect themselves—they also need to be mindful of the safety of their sources, colleagues, fixers, and, increasingly, their data. Then there’s the problem of coming home with no support network. “When you go into these traumatizing situations, and you don’t always have an editor you’re processing things with or a newsroom to go back to, that can be an isolating experience when you go home,” Stillman says. “That’s something I’ve seen with other people,” especially combat photographers.

There are a few upsides to being a freelancer, though. After her first trip, she went back with the help of a fellowship from NYU. Being a free agent was, for Stillman, “a way of pursuing this story I was really passionate about but other outlets might not be willing to support up front.” She’s talking about a feature she reported about human trafficking on US military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, which ended up being her first story in The New Yorker. It would have been a long shot to sell that piece up front, on just a pitch.

I agree with Draper, who wrote in ELLE that these stories are “worth reporting on, even at great risk.” And yeah, Lindhout ended up with a sweet book deal and an avalanche of media attention. But such an ordeal is really, really not worth it. The bottom line, says Greenwell, is that “living in a warzone with institutional support is incredibly difficult. You should not even consider doing it without institutional support without an exceeding amount of preparation. Bravado is not a virtue in warzones.”

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk