Covering war 'pretty miserable' but vital
By Stephan Wilson
ARLINGTON, Va. Covering war can be exciting, but it's not a romantic adventure, USATODAY.com's Kirk Spitzer says.
"It's pretty miserable most of the time," Spitzer said June 9 at a Newseum Inside Media program. But the assignments are worth the effort because "war is one of the most important stories out there."
Spitzer said that Americans must get as clear a picture of war as possible. "The public needs to be as fairly and fully informed about these important things as it can be," he said.
Spitzer got his start in journalism early, reporting for his high school and college newspapers before landing a job covering the defense industry in Fort Worth, Texas. That led him to covering the Pentagon for Gannett News Service. Soon after, instead of the Pentagon briefing room, he found himself in the battlefield and learned about the nature of war firsthand.
In Somalia, that meant surviving mob violence. During what he called an "utterly stupid, stupid decision" to drive unescorted through the back streets of Mogadishu, Spitzer and his companions found themselves surrounded by an angry mob. Young soldiers, children really wielding guns as big as they were, joined the mob. As the preteens pointed their weapons, Spitzer thought "Oh, my God, we're going to die, they're going to kill us," he said. Fortunately they escaped unharmed.
Covering violent conflicts sometimes leads to conflict inside yourself, the reporter said. A journalist should only get involved if his action is the only way to prevent death, Spitzer said. "You're not there to save the world, you're there to tell the world what's going on so they can save these other people," he said.
Spitzer's battlefield experiences were not all terrifying. The military treated him well, he said, especially the soldiers in the field. Mutual respect was forged as journalists and soldiers faced the same conditions together, far away from home.
Servicemen often gave him tips and equipment to help prepare him for combat conditions. Spitzer was taught about gas attacks for his Persian Gulf War coverage and land mines for his coverage of fighting in Bosnia. But he said that news organizations should provide such training before sending journalists to cover armed conflicts.
Spitzer also said that journalists should take extra care in filing their stories given today's instant communications. He reported live from Albania over the Internet and found that the amount of time once spent just getting the story filed could now be spent on improving the quality of the story. The important thing, he said, is to "get it first, but first get it right."
The program was held in conjunction with the Newseum's War Stories exhibit, on display through Nov. 11.
War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.