Kevin Sites On Getting Dangerous Stories, Stirrings Brought by Katrina, and Slippery Truth

Kevin Sites

A veteran combat correspondent who has worked for CNN, NBC, and ABC, Kevin Sites set off for Somalia this week, the first of up to 31 conflict-ridden countries he will report from over the next year for Yahoo! News. Working as a one-man unit, Sites aims to produce transparent and empathetic journalism — using video, audio, text, still photos, and interactive chat — and “provide a dimension of reporting that you just haven’t seen before.” His daily “Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone” reports start September 26. Sites, 42, won an Edward R. Murrow Award as a NBC producer for coverage of the war in Kosovo.

Edward B. Colby: Few people, war correspondents or not, would voluntarily go on a tour of global hot zones. Why are you doing this?

Kevin Sites: I think these stories are so underreported that there are things that, I don’t want to say they’ve been completely ignored by the mainstream media, but they’ve just been incredibly undercovered to the point where especially in the U.S., we don’t even know where these countries are for the most part, let alone that there are conflicts going on in them. The idea behind this project was, especially for Yahoo! as the launch of their first news correspondent, is to do some of the most difficult kind of journalism that we can to really enhance some of the credibility of our newsgathering efforts … but additionally that we need to do things that other people aren’t doing. We need to go to places that other people aren’t covering, and Yahoo! is one of those unique multimedia platforms where you can actually do this. If I had gone to the networks — if I had gone to NBC or CBS or ABC or anyone else and told them that I wanted to do this — they probably would laugh in my face. I couldn’t have even done one story in Africa unless there was very compelling news that had a very hard American angle on it. And for Yahoo! to allow me to pursue stories in places that people haven’t even heard of is I think a huge commitment to authentic journalism, to the kind of journalism that people will pay lip service to but rarely provide.

The other thing about this which is pretty interesting [is] it brings together this whole nexus of smaller digital newsgathering equipment — being able to go out in the field and do a story almost like a print reporter, where I don’t disturb the environment to the same degree that I would if I were traveling with a four-person television crew … Second, it allows us to move fairly quickly and be mobile, to go to places that might take a longer time if we were trying to get a lot of gear and equipment and people in. That nexus of smaller newsgathering tools [will be] combined with the Internet delivery system, as well as our focus — which is going to be human narrative storytelling most like magazine journalism, narrative nonfiction where we don’t chase headlines and we don’t just do body counts, [but] we put the human face on every story we cover.

EBC: You say you are challenging the mainstream media to recapture its mission and reinvigorate its international coverage, that there is “huge dissatisfaction” among today’s news consumers. How do you think the mainstream media is failing them?

KS: Well, I think on a number of levels. First of all, they treat their audience like idiots. People are not idiots. They’ll rise to our level of expectations, and that’s what we want to do with this project. We want to operate on the assumption that people are hungry for information on their world, that they want to understand what’s going on in places that perhaps they don’t have the daily experience in, and it’s not just about spoonfeeding them stories about Natalee Holloway and other scandals of the week. For instance, what’s happening in Katrina is a positive trend for the media, for the U.S. media, anyway, that they’ve gone down there and, I don’t want to say they’ve left their objectivity at home, but they’ve come with a sense of reporting the facts as they truly apply to the situation. There’s a sense of outrage to some extent on what’s going on down there, or the slow federal response. Well, that’s our job in the media — to question federal government, to question positions of authority, and that particular portfolio for us has been lost in a way. I think the mainstream media has been cowed by political concerns for the last five to ten years to the point where we’ve become ineffective and we’ve lost our sense of purpose. We’ve lost our sense of our role in a democracy, which is to question authority as well as to tell the stories that are not getting told, and we’re starting to see that with Katrina — that pendulum has swung back in the other direction a bit. I’d like to continue pushing it in that direction.

EBC: Do you think that some of the emotion and even outrage that we saw in the Katrina coverage marks a turning point for the media, or could it just be a blip brought on by the crisis?

KS: What happened after 9/11, what we all saw was that the networks said, we’re going to focus more on world coverage. We’re going to look at some of the reasons and the causes behind what happened in the 9/11 tragedy. And we’re going to explore what’s happening in other places in the world with a greater degree of aggressiveness and vigor. That lasted all of about a month after the war in Afghanistan winded down. And that appetite, or that desire to cover the world more aggressively, seemed to dissipate. I hate to say it, but I believe the same thing will happen to Katrina once the outrage starts to die down a little bit — that we will not pursue to the same degree the solutions and the accountability that has to be reported on to make positive changes in our society.

EBC: Where exactly will you go on this trip and what will be your M.O. for reporting and filing stories as you get into each country?

KS: We’ve broken the world down into six regions. So one is Africa — we’re going to go there first. That is probably the most underreported continent, especially for American media … we’re going to apply a set of standards from IISS, International Institute for Strategic Studies, on defining conflict … In addition to their standards, we’re also going to add our criteria that the armed conflict has to be active within the last three months, that there is some type of activity. That way it keeps it very current. The whole idea behind doing that is not to create a checklist that we just work our way through, but to mirror what’s happening in the world on a global level and to show our audience the range, the scope of conflict, the consequences that it has on their lives … What does it take to get the diamond ring that you just used to propose to your fiance? Who are the people that were mining those diamonds and how did they get here? All of those things have to do with conflicts in Africa, and we want to be able to look at that across the board and make that relevant to our audience.

How I’ll actually operate physically in the field, I’ll travel solo as I’ve been doing pretty much for the last five years. I’ve had shooters in different conflicts every once in a while, but [when] I’ll go into a region I’ll hire what we call a fixer, a translator-driver, or someone who can help me move and navigate through that country. I carry all my technical gear in one backpack and I’ve got basically an operating system of three digital video cameras, [two satellite phones, a satellite modem, and a 12-inch laptop].

EBC: And after Africa what other countries will you head to?

KS: We’ll go into the Middle East. We’ll certainly go back to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, [with] the potential of going to the West Bank [and] Chechnya … Out of the 31 countries that we identified as conflict zones, 15 of them are currently hot, [and] 16 are on our watch list. We may cover all 31, depending on what’s going on, [or] we may cover 20. It just depends on what’s happening in each region. But we’ll go basically from west to east. There’s five nations in Africa that we’re going to hit. Somalia, the Congo, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Sudan and possibly Rwanda … Then most likely I’ll go back to Iraq and report on what’s going on there.

EBC: Previously, you and your team were captured briefly by Iraqi Fedayeen militia. Are you worried that you’ll be putting your life in danger again on this trip?

KS: I’ve covered conflict for the last five years and there has been more than one occasion where my life was threatened or I felt like there’s an imminent danger of death or injury, and I feel that I’ve become fairly prudent in understanding what dangers surround me and how to act within that particular set of parameters. At the same time, you can’t control your environment. In so many ways we’re like children when we go out into these countries where we don’t speak the language, where we’re not native to the customs or the culture, and so I certainly have anxiety about that. That’s a natural type of anxiety. At the same time I want to use my years of experience and in training to make prudent decisions when I’m on the ground and to do the right things when I’m out there, to give me the greatest degree of safety that I can. That being said, I think this may be the most important thing I ever do in my life. As journalists, we all feel that we want to do something that has impact, that we’re not just telling stories for stories’ sake, but we’re telling stories that potentially can change things, that can make the world better or improve a situation, where there is a tragedy or conflict going on. And my ability to be able to bring these stories to people globally — this reporting will cross national boundaries, it won’t just be for America, it’s for the world — has the potential to draw people into support of NGOs or solutions to those problems … so the potential benefit of what we’re doing here, I think, certainly mitigates the potential of danger and the kind of trouble that you can run into out there. That being said, I certainly hope to avoid it all.

EBC: You became, as you wrote on your blog, a “lightning rod for controversy” late last year after you filmed and then broadcast on the NBC Nightly News a Marine shooting and killing a wounded, unarmed Iraqi inside a Fallujah mosque. You found yourself caught between your responsibilities as a journalist and your attachment to these soldiers you had been living with, but decided to run the video. Still, in a recent interview with The Guardian you said you backed into the shooting in your NBC report. Do you wish you had framed the story differently?

KS: That’s a really good question. In some ways I do, Ned. The environment that we were in right then — I did have a great degree of fear about the impact of my reporting. Was it going to place more Marines in danger? Was it going to place more civilians in danger? Would it inspire insurgents to not surrender and to fight even more fiercely? So you have to think about the consequences of your actions…I look back at that story right now and I honestly feel like we did back into it. Perhaps the way that we did it on that particular segment for the Nightly News was the right way to do it for that evening, that close to the incident itself. In the subsequent reporting I wish that we would have been more transparent about what was going on and shown the whole video. The entire world saw this video, but people in America did not see the video. And what I think that we truly understand, inherently as journalists, is that you can’t hide or bury the truth, and the truth can be a slippery thing. You don’t always know what the context of it is, but you have to give people the respect and dignity of being able to see for themselves and decide what they’re seeing. You provide the context, and they make their own decisions on it. You see the anger that comes out of the decision of the federal government not to allow photographs of the bodies being brought back from Iraq in Dover, you see the anger of networks self-censoring themselves for so long that they don’t show bodies in war anymore, period, or wounded. And finally, now we’re starting to see the results of the aftermath of Katrina. I think our journalistic colleagues are beginning to say to themselves, listen, this is reality, it may be unpleasant, but that’s part of the world. And we have to be able to show the unpleasant reality of these things.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.