By Charlyne Berens
J Alumni News editor
Journalists are taught to study the issues of the day and then put authorities on the spot, Steve Komarow said. But the 2003 war in Iraq put journalists on the spot, the USA TODAY reporter and Berlin bureau chief told journalism students in October.
Embedding journalists with military units became official U.S. policy, and it did give reporters firsthand access to the war, Komarow said. But it was far from perfect.
"You get a very deep but not very broad picture when you're embedded." That kind of picture is not necessarily the whole picture.
Komarow was embedded with Lt. Gen. William Wallace and the Army's V Corps, moving toward Baghdad from the southwest. Wallace regularly went out to talk to people on the front, and Komarow always went along.
That gave him an inside track on what the military was likely to do next, Komarow said, but like reporters on all battlefields in all wars, he had to agree not to report troop movements and activities before they happened.
Furthermore, nearly all the information he and other journalists were able to report came from the Army's point of view. For instance, reporters had no way to find out what the Iraqi troops mowed down by the advancing allied forces had been thinking. "Were they nuts? Were they fanatics? Were they trained to believe their weapons were effective?"
"We had a huge amount of information, but it was only from one side, and it was a very narrow view," Komarow said.
Part of the problem was that embedding became the driving force behind coverage, Komarow said. Media reported on day-to-day activities because they could. That focus may have crowded out critical analysis, especially for TV journalists, Komarow said. Why take video of the battlefront off the air to analyze the trouble caused when a town's water system doesn't work?
Still, Komarow thinks journalists did help the public understand what was happening during the war, especially by reporting on the U.S. soldiers themselves.
Komarow also covered the U.S. attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Coverage there, as it is throughout the Middle East, was affected by the need for translators as well as the contrast in worldviews, he said.
"The separation of church and state seems ridiculous to most" in that part of the world, Komarow said. That kind of mindset makes a difference to a story. Facts are the most important thing for a reporter, but so are people's points of view and how they color the facts.
Once they've taken all that into account, journalists still face the challenge of presenting all the information they have in a way that is accessible and interesting. "Your stories need to be reasonably simple but still explain context," Komarow said.
That concept fits well with USA TODAY'S approach, he said. USA TODAY assumes readers are busy and that stories must be accessible and relevant. "It's a very populist attitude," he said.
Komarow had covered Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and looked to be headed for a journalism career covering U.S. politics. But he turned instead to international coverage in places like Bosnia, Haiti and Kosovo in addition to the Middle East. That has led to some risky assignments, particularly difficult with a family, Komarow said.
For instance, he was sent to Afghanistan soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "The hardest thing (for his family) was the uncertainty about when I'd be returning," he said.
He and other reporters headed for war zones have benefited by a boot camp for journalists run by Centurion Risk Services, Komarow said. Journalists learn safety and survival skills and are prepared for situations where the biggest danger may be not so much from actual battles but from the chaos and anarchy that surround such struggles.
Journalism faculty and students who heard Komarow speak said they were impressed. "We needed to hear from somebody who was actually embedded," said John Bender, news-editorial faculty member.
Van Jensen, a senior news-ed student, said Komarow told interesting stories about his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Jensen said he also liked hearing Komarow talk specifically about journalism. For instance, Komarow told students he thinks any media bias is caused less by some ideological objective than by "the story." Reporters want to learn all they can and show off everything they know, and the results can sometimes look biased, Komarow said.
Komarow said journalists had to try to set aside their natural loyalties in a war setting and cover the story as thoroughly as possible. "You need to ask people what the event means, who benefits, who's behind it. You try to synthesize what's going on and what people say on all sides, develop as fair a picture as possible."
He cited an instance in Afghanistan where the U.S. media helped make sure U.S. armed forces were held accountable. The military had mistakenly bombed an Afghan wedding party, and when internal investigators went to the scene, they took U.S. journalists with them.
"The Afghan media said the U.S. wanted to erase the evidence" of the deadly mistake, Komarow said, "but the journalists headed it off" by publicizing the incident and putting pressure on the military to take responsibility.
In other words, the journalists did their job: putting authorities on the spot.