Sherry Ricchiardi: journalists in peril

Twice the winner of the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism, American Journalism Review correspondent Sherry Ricchiardi has chronicled the lives of journalists in peril for almost two decades. She lives in Washington D.C., with her husband Frank Folwell, former deputy managing editor in photo/graphics at USA Today, but travels widely to hold workshops for journalists under the auspices of the State Department and nonprofit organizations.

She also holds an appointment at the Indiana University School of Journalism, Indianapolis. As colleagues, we worked together after Hurricane Katrina to interview journalists about their experience reporting in extreme conditions. When I met up with her again this summer in Indianapolis, she had just returned from holding workshops for Pakistani journalists. In an office at the Indianapolis Star where she was training young Pulliam Fellows, we talked about the dangers faced by journalists in Pakistan and other areas of conflict around the globe. –Carol Polsgrove, Summer 2010

Ricchiardi: [Pakistani journalists] are caught in the crosshairs. Think of it: every terrorist group wants to kill them because they’re writing stuff they don’t like. It’s not just the Taliban. We say “Taliban” like it’s a monolith, but there are many factions of Taliban, many factions of terrorists, and many of them go after local journalists.  And ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency, is awful – they’ve hated journalists forever, so they’re after them.

During workshops, I asked them, “Why are you journalists?” And so many of them said, “We want to serve our nation. This is our country. Our country is going to hell right now. It’s got a corrupt government and a corrupt military.  We’re practically on the last rung of getting into war so we want to be the voice of reason here.” I said, “Yes, but at great expense.”

A journalist was killed while we were in Lahore, in a terrorist attack, and we were scheduled to meet with reporters and photographers at the press club that night. Right after the attack, we had a call from the embassy saying, “Stay where you are, we don’t know how bad this is.” But we insisted on going to the press club.  We told our contact at the Embassy, if the journalists don’t cancel, we’re not canceling – what are they going to think of Americans? Wimps – you’ve got to hang out in the hotel?

So we went there in an armored vehicle with an SUV full of armed police following behind.  There were armed guards at the gate to the press club. There was a gunman on the roof, protected by a barricade of sandbags. You could see his head, and you could see the gun barrel, and then later I saw the little plastic chair he was sitting in, like a $3 Walmart chair. I asked the president of the press club, “Why all the fire power?” He said, “You have no idea how many times we’ve been threatened by so many different groups.”

But there were all the journalists in the courtyard, because it was very hot that day. They were filing stories and photos to Reuters, to other foreign news outlets and to their own newspapers. We talked to them later that night and said, “You know a colleague was killed today,” and they shrugged and replied, “This is our reality. To you a journalist being killed is really big time. To us this is what we do.”

There was an incredible calm about them even though they had just seen dozens of people, including children, blown up.  One of them, a grisly veteran photojournalist, proudly showed us his take and talked about covering violence as if it were simply part of his beat.

Polsgrove: Do you see that sense of public purpose ­– do you see that operating in America? Or is it on the sickbed?

Ricchiardi: I think it’s on the sickbed because of all the layoffs and closures of foreign bureaus.  We’ve gone to parachute journalism or helicopter journalism, whatever you want to call it, and to hiring more stringers.  But for the journalists who are out there full time, I would say, yes, that there’s a real sense of purpose. If I approach them the right way I get a sense of that almost every time.

Kathy Gannon has been with Associated Press in that region of the world, in Afghanistan and Pakistan – she was there when the Russians were there. She knows the importance of that region, not just to the United States but also to the world.  Pakistan’s got nuclear weapons; Afghanistan is a corrupt, failed state.  She’s dedicated to the story, and she’s been there so long that she has contacts. If she can’t get into Waziristan, she has somebody talking to her who she trusts from Waziristan.

She’s married to a Pakistani and so she has real roots there. She has a sense of purpose. She’s been in Foreign Affairs – she had a major piece there in 2009. She loves to talk about what she does and what journalists are doing there and what they think they’re contributing to the world’s understanding of a very complex and dangerous situation.

Polsgrove: You’ve written quite a bit about the important role that journalists play in American foreign policy by being independent eyes on the ground. In the years you’ve been covering foreign reporting, do you think that the American media ­– I don’t mean the reporters on the ground, necessarily, but their editors­ – are they doing what Noam Chomsky says they did and following the lead of the State Department in how much attention they pay to a certain region?

A reporter I know who’s in Honduras says that what’s happening to journalists in Iran gets a lot of attention, but what happens to journalists in Honduras doesn’t get that attention because the State Department is busy making nice with the new government of Honduras.

Ricchiardi: Why is there so much interest in Afghanistan now when two years ago our soldiers were dying and so were the Afghans, and the media weren’t paying attention. So why now? Well, because Obama came into office and made it a foreign policy priority, and so all of a sudden everybody’s shifting attention. And now why aren’t we hearing about Iraq as much? Because not as many of us are dying there although Iraqis are continuing to die, not from our hands but from the terrorists and the insurgents who are still operating there. So I think there’s something to that – that if it’s not on the American government’s radar the media also look away.

Last October I was at a conference in Madrid to talk about how conflicts have changed and how media coverage of conflicts has changed, and there was a woman, a TV personality in Spain, who was sent to Georgia when the Russians and Georgians were fighting there. She was saying, “My editors didn’t want it.” It didn’t involve Spain.

She was saying the very same thing, that because the Spanish government wasn’t involved there – and all these people were dying, she had personally seen Russians firing on civilians – she personally had witnessed that and reported on it, and she couldn’t get it on the air.  She had risked her life to be there and her anger was so strong that day. She said, “I can’t believe my editors – knowing that I was an eyewitness to this killing – did not want it on the air.”  I have heard American correspondents make similar statements about risking their lives and having editors show a lack of interest in their work.

Polsgrove: In these conflict situations, whether it’s internal conflict or government oppression or crime or war, journalists are often unable to get huge parts of the story because their access is blocked, there’s violence and so on. In all the reading you’ve done of foreign coverage of what’s going on in other places, do you see journalists able to signal to the reader what they are not getting, or do they still maintain the air of “This is the news.”

Ricchiardi: The good ones signal. We saw that with Valley of Swat when the Pakistani army, the military, moved in to push the Taliban out, and the local journalists had to flee for their lives – once again they were caught in crossfire.   The Taliban were saying, “If you are not on our side we’ll kill you,” and the army was saying, “If you do this we’ll kill you.” Most foreign journalists couldn’t get in either because the Pakistani army didn’t want them to see what was going on.  I interviewed a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor and a couple of others, who tried but couldn’t get in.

The Associated Press started to do it and then I saw others do it: the reporter would say, the Pakistani military said 27 Taliban were killed today but this cannot be independently verified. And the lack of access, too – they let their readers know “we can’t get into Waziristan and we can’t check what the [U.S.] drones are doing, if they are killing civilians.”

Dexter Filkins [of the New York Times] did get in – at the risk of his life he got in disguised as a Pakistani. What if he had been caught?  The story he got became part of the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning package in 2009.

Polsgrove: One of the themes that comes through your writing is that in much of the world where reporting is dangerous people coming in from outside, like Americans, are visibly strangers, and as strangers they are immediately suspect because they may be seen as allied in some way with a government – the military or CIA. What are some of the strategies journalists use to avoid being seen as strangers?

Ricchiardi: They try everything. Deborah Amos from NPR was in the lead to a story I wrote for AJR, and I asked her this question. And she said she covers herself with an abaya – long black robe – and scarf.  Female correspondents can get away with this. I was reconstructing the scene with her: what does she do just before she gets in the car to go out on an assignment? And she told me, “I look down at my shoes, because my shoes could be a giveaway.”

The men tell me, “I grow beards, I get out in the sun so my skin darkens down, I dye my hair.” They dress like locals, as best they can. Some will say, “We time it. We’re in for 19 minutes and we’re out. We won’t stay longer than 20 minutes.” I know from my own experience in conflict zones, you constantly weigh the benefits against the risk.  As soon as you come to the point where you feel uncomfortable, get out, leave. It’s not worth it. There is no story worth getting killed for.

Polsgrove: You’ve written about the preparation that some media organizations give their journalists. How widespread is that now – that journalists get some kind of training when they’re going into dangerous situations?

Ricchiardi: The big news organizations – BBC, Reuters, AP, USA Today when they send their few people around the world if they’re going into conflict zones, New York Times – they all do hostile environment training, as it is called. They hire some of the well-known groups such as Centurion Risk Assessment Services, made up of former British Royal Marine commandos, the equivalent to American special forces.

Polsgrove: And the free-lancers – are any of the international organizations watching out for the freelancers? Nearly 45 per cent of the journalists in prison now are freelancers.

Ricchiardi: The Rory Peck Trust was one of the first to reach out in a meaningful way to freelancers.  Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have safety handbooks on their websites that you can download. They’re real basic but what I learned in a war zone is it’s the tiny things that count. I never had body armor – the UN wouldn’t take us in C-130 cargo planes to Sarajevo without it so I had to, not buy it but rent it, but it’s the little things – like never get in the backseat of a two-door car when you’re in a war zone. Did I know that? Do you know how I found out?

I was in the back seat of a two-door car in an area of Croatia that was under fire, and a very experienced foreign correspondent saw me in a hotel later that night, and he said, “You’re making a terrible mistake. The driver can roll out, the passenger can roll out. You’re in the car that’s going to get hit. And I don’t care how cold it is out, keep every window in that car down so you can hear every sound.”

Polsgrove: How did you happen to be reporting in the Balkans? Don’t you have a family relation to Croatia?

Ricchiardi: My mother was born in the U.S., but of Croatian heritage. And I’d been going there – the first time I went there was ’69, as a young woman. The war started in the Balkans in summer of ’91, and Frank and I had rented a car and we drove through the Baltics in the Soviet Union – they were still under Soviet control at that time – and things were happening there, bad things.   The people were protesting. And I knew some editors at newspapers, so I did some stories while I was there – little stories, not big ones.

Later on that trip, we got to Croatia and we saw tanks in the street, we saw soldiers everywhere, we couldn’t figure out quite what was happening. We knew that Croatia had declared independence from Communist Yugoslavia, and we knew that Serbia was upset about that.  Serbia was in the process of attacking.

I came back and told my boss, Associate Dean Jim Brown, “I really need to go, I’ve got good contacts,” and he said, “If we can get your classes covered, fine,” and I went. Frank at the same time was covering the fall of the former Soviet Union, so he was there, and I was in Croatia.

It didn’t take much for me to get newspapers to use my stories because there weren’t many journalists there then. One of the first stories I wrote about a hospital in the town of Vincovci, Croatia, being bombed by Serbian forces with patients and wounded soldiers in it, I sent to the Miami Herald – they put it on the front page. The Herald later put a story I wrote about mass rape in Bosnia on page one.

At that time I had never covered war, I didn’t know incoming fire from outgoing fire.  There are a whole lot of things you need to know and I didn’t. I went into the war zone for the first time with a British journalist, and he didn’t know much either, and a researcher who happened into our group.

We were out in these villages, and we stopped at a farmhouse that looked deserted. I walked into the courtyard and men with rifles came out and women followed them. They were just waiting to be attacked. We could hear mortar fire in the distance.  We went a little bit further and then we were under fire.

The British journalist was driving – he pulled the car off the road, there was a huge ditch there and we just rolled into it.  Pretty soon somebody was returning fire, we could hear – tch-tch-tch-tch ­­– and a group of armed men came out of the forest. We didn’t know who they were because they were in street clothes – Croatia didn’t have an army yet – and they came toward us, waving and yelling.   I said, “My god, they’re speaking Croatian.” I could see the patch sewn on their jackets – the Croatian emblem.

They took us to a bombed out farmhouse in this town of Pakrac, which was under incredible attack. The Serbs were unrelentingly shelling. It was pretty horrible, and a lot of people had already left.  We were in the cellar of this destroyed farmhouse and the soldiers said, “You’ve got to stay here, you can’t get out now, there’s too much fire.”

Pretty soon here come these local women, and they were carrying a platter of lamb, roasted lamb, and they were carrying apple strudel and little delicate coffee cups – the coffee was in an urn.  They had come to feed the men because they were taking care of the fighters, but they had heard there were two women. So they came with their beautiful little dishes and gave us this food, and I thought, “Oh my god, what kind of war is this?” So I knew I had a story.

When the soldiers came back we were asking, “Who are you?” One was a bank teller and one was a schoolteacher and one was a construction worker. The first story I wrote was – “Village Warriors:  No longer farmers and schoolboys, Croatians are caught in up in defending their homeland,” or something along those lines.  So that was my first taste of it and I thought, “This is it ­– this is telling people stories, this is telling a different side of war than the bang-bang stuff, how many shells fell today, how many bodies.  This was the human side of the horror.”

Polsgrove: Let’s talk about that a little bit ­– “the human side of war”  – that’s what really made you feel what you were doing was worth going through the danger. How often do you think that is the case with journalists? I’d like to see the array of motivations that journalists take to dangerous situations.

Ricchiardi: What I’ve found it is that most of them who are really serious about it feel they are making a difference or can make a difference by getting the word out. I’ve run across cowboys, cowgirls, and they’re vastly different. They’re there for thrill, the adventure, the adrenalin rush. They love the bang-bang, and I’ve seen women as well as men in this role. They can still be good reporters, they can still be good writers, but they have a different motivation for being there than someone like Carlotta Gall, who is my hero – the New York Times correspondent.

I met her, and I’ve interviewed her many times. She really is so committed to that part of the world – to the Afghanistan, Pakistan area. She was the lead to a story I wrote where she was just seconds from being killed in Kandahar several years ago when the Taliban were on the run, then returned, and she was trying to tell the world, “They’re back!” She had just entered a local police station when the Taliban attacked.  All of these veteran correspondents have harrowing stories to tell of near misses.

Polsgrove: Let’s talk a little about the local reporters. You do workshops in all sorts of places. Do those workshops ever include segments on keeping yourself alive, whether you teach them or not?

Ricchiardi: No, most don’t. We heard this over and over from Pakistani journalists ­– I was just there a few weeks ago:  “Please help us with safety training, please talk to our editors, because we have nothing [protective gear].”  A Scandinavian media organization did some weeklong training but that was for a handful of journalists. So I suggested that they talk to the NGOs that can get a grant and bring people in, because nobody’s going to pay $10,000 to hire those fancy Brit commandos. But you can find good people who can do this.  This is a very, very important issue because most of the journalists killed in places like Iraq are locals.  CPJ has kept good numbers on that.

Polsgrove: We’ve talked quite a bit about foreign correspondents but in terms of sheer numbers, it’s the local reporters who are in danger of their lives. Do you think that journalists are the canaries in the coalmine? Are we simply becoming a more and more hazardous world? It does seem the number of journalists who are dying or being imprisoned or brutalized is rising.

Ricchiardi: The very nature of conflict and violence has changed from the days when there was clear demarcation – here’s this side, there’s that side – and you could sort of plan your strategy based on where the front lines were and who held the territory. Now the lines are incredibly blurred. We would cross an area the Croatians or the Bosnians held and then later that day come through and the Serbs had it. You just never knew. Territory constantly was changing hands.  You had people coming toward you with guns and you weren’t sure who they were. In World War II, it was very clear who the enemy was.

I had journalists in Colombia – Bogota – tell me that. They said, “We have to figure it out when we come up to a checkpoint whether they are guerrillas, army or paramilitary, and I asked, “How do you do that?” One of the photographers told me,  “Their boots. The army has certain kind of boots, guerrillas have certain kind of boots, and the paramilitary have more money than guerillas so they’ve got fancier boots.  If we see certain kind of a boots, we know those are guerrilla fighters.” So before they got to the checkpoint and stop the car, they take out their binoculars or try to get to a good vantage point where they can see and plan their strategy: “If these are guerillas, this is what we need to tell them what we’re doing, if they are paramilitary we need to tell them something else.”

Conflicts have gotten so convoluted and dangerous that journalists are caught in the middle of that, and that’s why more of us are dying, more are getting arrested, held hostage, kidnapped, and intimidated by one faction or another.

Frank was talking to a Pakistani journalist about safety equipment and the reporter interrupted him and said, “That might be important but the reason I am alive is luck.”  He went on to explain that when he covers a terrorist attack that involves different ethnic or religious factions, “If they knew I was from the other sect, they would kill me.”  Over the years, I have heard Iraqi journalists say that. One of the western reporters told me, “We can’t send our locals – if they’re of a certain sect, a certain religious group – to the other side because they will be identified by the way they speak or something they say so we have to be really careful.”

Polsgrove: All of this is so hard. I wonder how it has affected you in your own psyche. I know you’re associated with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and they pay attention to how journalists are affected by the trauma they cover. You hear all these horrendous stories. How do you keep your head above water?

Ricchiardi: The Dart Center and particularly Dr. Frank Ochberg, the founder, is sort of like my guardian angel. I wrote one of the first stories for AJR that was about journalism and trauma – it was called “Confronting the Horror.” That’s when I tripped on Dart and Frank Ochberg, the psychiatrist. He talked to me.  At dinner one night, he asked me the very question you’re asking. And we just started talking.  What Dart does is great because we’re constantly hearing what other journalists are thinking and feeling, and we talk to each other, and it’s out there instead of holding your emotions in. I don’t have to feel macho about it.

I can tell people that I covered a massacre in Vocin – a small village in Croatia, and there were some 45 dead, mostly villagers over 50 years old killed by Serbian paramilitary.  Some of them were hacked apart and burned; one had been cut in half with an electric saw, and there was no morgue. I went to the hospital where the bodies were, and they were laid out on the floor in rows; the stench was horrible, so a nurse put a mask on my face, and spread it with mentholatum.  I walked through and was told, “Don’t ask a single question, just walk with the doctors. You can be an observer but you cannot ask a question in here.”

So I walked through, and watched what the doctors were doing. They had taken one elderly woman’s body and put it on a gurney and they were looking at places where she had been mutilated. They only let me in there for about 15 minutes, and I walked out, I almost fainted. I just started crying. I couldn’t breathe.  Somebody brought a glass of whisky ­– it came out of nowhere. A doctor said, “Okay, take deep breaths.” I just couldn’t stop crying. I thought, “These could be my parents.” They were innocent people in the wrong place during a war that they didn’t cause.

The worst time for me, and I know other journalists have said this, is the transition from when I go someplace where there’s conflict and violence and come home – when I was covering the war and I was in and out of battle zones a lot – I ended up going to Bosnia where the war got worse and bloodier even than in Croatia – I was seeing terrible things. I was in Sarajevo a couple of times during the siege.  One morning, I flew out of Sarajevo in a UN cargo plane – got to Zagreb and flew directly back to the United States. When I got home, we traveled to Davenport, Iowa, Frank’s hometown.  Our nephew was very young then and was playing Little League ball.

So we were at this Little League game, and there were mothers passing out Smile cookies, big bright yellow Smile cookies, and I had just been in Sarajevo within the last 48 hours where they were gunning kids down and there were babies being operated on in the hospital without anesthetics, and I got angry, I got so mad.  Frank didn’t know what to do with me. I said, “I want out, I hate this, I don’t want to be here.” I went and sat in the car. It passed, but it was normal – all those happy little American kids, and I had just come out of hell.

That was before Dart, but now I would say, I’ve got to get on the phone and talk to some of my friends out there who’ve been through it. Back then you didn’t know who to talk to. I was so lonely and scared. What was I feeling? Why am I pissed off at these mothers and their crummy Smile cookies? It wasn’t post-traumatic stress – it was just a normal reaction. I hear the journalists tell me this – that they come home and the normality of life with their wife or husband or children drives them nuts.

Polsgrove: You’ve been chronicling the dangers of being a journalist for almost two decades. You’ve usually done several stories a year, all the way across the globe – from Zimbabwe to Russia. How did you find your way into this subject?

Ricchiardi: I had done some international reporting for the Des Moines Register while I was there – not a lot, but some. The Ph.D. broke it for me. I got my Ph.D. from Iowa State in ‘86, and I never stopped being a journalist during that time. I worked fulltime for the Register and took classes piecemeal along the way and had editors who gave me time when I needed it. After I got the Ph.D. I started getting nibbles from people about doing training abroad, working abroad and covering stories abroad, because all of a sudden I had a credential that most journalists didn’t have, that legitimized me more in the eyes of some foreigners.

The [Berlin] Wall fell in ‘89 and I had a call from an organization in Germany who said they were putting together a group of journalists, including some from the West, to do media training in former Communist countries.   So I went to Poland. We were at a major paper in Warsaw, and we’d come in with our highfalutin’ attitude of “Oh boy, we’re going to talk to them about investigative reporting.” We sat down with a couple of the main editors and said,  “How can we best serve you?” And they looked at each other and said, “Well there’s one thing you can do – help us define exactly what is news.” We looked at each other and thought, “Oh my god.”

The government had been handing them information, they were ordered to publish it, they were ordered not to edit it very much or to make critical comment and it was all mushed together in their paper, so how could they ferret out what was real news and what was propaganda or government spin. We were taken aback and had to regroup and say, “Okay, we’re going back to journalism 101” – no insult was meant to them.  But we actually began walking these editors and reporters through concepts like timeliness, proximity, importance controversy and other news values.  They were fascinated and they were taking notes.

Then we asked, “With these concepts, what kind of stories can you envision doing?”  They were like kids in a candy store, rethinking and redefining their process of newsgathering. I was hooked. I left there and I thought, I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I’m going to have to figure out a way.

The media training I just did in Pakistan – this came out of many, many years I’ve been doing this all over the world. At the same time I’m working for AJR as a journalist, I’m doing this for a lot of different groups, and one thing that I realized a few years ago is that journalists are like a family.  Wherever we go, I don’t care if it’s Pakistan, Yemen, or Armenia, if people are serious about journalism, then we speak the same language. We talk about truth telling. We talk about minimizing harm, about responsibility, accountability, accuracy and fairness. It’s the same language expressed sometimes in a different way, but it gives us common ground to start a discussion, even in Yemen, where there’s very little tradition of an educated press.

I just said that in Pakistan – I told the journalists it doesn’t matter that I just came from Washington, it wouldn’t matter if we were in London or Katmandu, we do speak the same language, we are family, and we need to take care of each other and support each other at a time when journalists all over the world are in peril for the important work they do.

You can read Sherry Ricchiardi’s stories on the American Journalism Review website.

Use the contact form below to contact Sherry Ricchiardi or Carol Polsgrove.