On October 21, 2021, CNN Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward spoke at a Loyola Marymount event hosted by the Global Policy Institute. Calling in from her home in London, she had just returned from Afghanistan a week prior, and was already planning to attend the G20 Summit the following week. With the discussions being led by Angelina Lin and Matthew Lamantia, she talked about her time in different war zones and offer her advice for students looking to enter the journalism field.
Clarissa Ward got her start in journalism by studying comparative literature at Yale. However, she did not know she was going to become a journalist until her senior year of college, just after 9/11. 9/11 changed the world, and it provided the foundation for a more nationalist American ideology. Citizens across the country felt called to military service, and for Ms. Ward personally, she felt ashamed that she was not more engaged with what was going on in the world. Given her upbringing in which she moved from country to country often, and her major, she believed she could be a translator between different worlds. In particular, she wanted to increase communication and understanding, and humanize people with whom the audience’s ideology did not agree with. She started her career with an internship at CNN, and in an effort to learn more as well as move up in her career faster, she took a job working at an overnight news desk at Fox News. Over the years, she continuously pressed her bosses to let her go into the field. At the time, the main conflict zone she had the opportunity to work in was Iraq. Other journalists working in Iraq were slowly feeling burnt out, and it was becoming increasingly dangerous to be in the field. At the age of 25, she received her chance to work at the Baghdad Bureau for six weeks, just before she quit her job to start working as a freelancer.
As for her time in Baghdad, Clarissa Ward stated that nothing could have prepared her for going to war. Even after immersing herself virtually through readings and documentaries, every experience in the war zone felt new and exciting. However, shortly into her time in Baghdad, her view changed. There was a triple suicide bombing attack on her hotel. Fortunately, the third suicide bomber truck became stuck on a razor wire, and in an effort to inflict the maximum damage possible, blew himself up early. While it meant that she survived, there was still a massive explosion. People were injured, and suddenly, rather than viewing being in the field as new and exciting, she began to realize it was not a game. It was not fun, and it was not exciting. She said it was horror, hell, and she was made constantly aware of her own mortality.
Ms. Ward went on to talk about her time on the ground in Syria, explaining how she was perpetually terrified. In Syria, there was no “safe haven” to run to, which did exist in other conflict zones. There were no rules or code of conduct in Syria. Civilians could be gassed, explosives could be dumped out of a helicopter into a densely populated area, hospitals could be shelled or bombed. Nothing was off limits. It was a war of no consequences, and it resulted in a state of heightened fear and alert. The emotional toll was higher in Syria than in other war zones. She constantly heard news that the people she interviewed, stayed with, or became friends with had been shot, bombed, or kidnapped. Consequently, it became difficult to continue to cover stories in Syria with the combination of the physical risks and heavy emotional bludgeoning. Ms. Ward mentioned a quote from her book, “Life means more in Syria.” By this, she means that any small act of kindness reverberates more than in the consumerist West. One is so deeply immersed in every moment that they become conscious of every small act of kindness. For instance, she talked about driving in a cab during a bombing. To calm her down, the cab driver gave her a piece of chocolate. Such an act would not be memorable in the US, but she said she could recall the taste of the chocolate and the sound of his voice in great detail. The war zones become a chaotic, but distilled space.
While one might expect that it would be most difficult to communicate the chaotic yet distilled nature of the war zone, Ms. Ward stated that the ability to communicate the idea that ‘people are people’ is fundamental, and a complicated idea to convey to international audiences. No matter a person’s skin color, ethnicity, or religion, people are people. Moreover, the Western media often tries to portray issues as black and white, but to be a journalist is to ‘live in the grey.’ In the field, one comes across evil people, psychopaths, and good people who simply espouse ideologies that are alien. The international community can be judgmental about the decisions that people make in war zones, and the militarization of certain communities. The international community forgets that the people living in these zones have been bombed day in and day out, losing family members and friends and children on a regular basis. Soon, people feel as though they have nothing left besides God. Terrorist groups grow as a result of military occupation. ISIS grew out of the US occupation of Iraq. Military occupation hardens people. Being a journalist, one has to give people a platform to share their ideas, regardless of whether or not it is uncomfortable to hear. In order to progress and learn from the past, there must be an understanding of where different ways of thinking originated, and provide people with context and humanity.
Having just returned from Kabul a week prior to the discussion, Clarissa Ward also discussed her time in Afghanistan during the evacuations. She described it as a rare moment with an undeniable thrill. There was an “awesome” sense of responsibility writing a first draft of history. However, it was a dangerous and difficult situation. There were few Western journalists on the streets in the early days of the Taliban takeover, but she did not feel as unsafe, having just spent time working and talking to the Taliban. Nevertheless, there were still security concerns. If she stood still for more than five minutes, she would become swarmed by Afghan citizens trying to provide their visas and beg for help to escape the country. The Taliban fired in the air and into the crowd on a regular basis. It became difficult balancing her safety, her job as a journalist, and being a human being and taking a moment to listen to someone. She said that sometimes people just need to feel heard. They need someone to stand there for five minutes and listen, even if that person cannot help. The airport was doused in heartache, bitterness, anger, and pain. It was tough to capture for the international audience, and it was burdensome to absorb as an observer and respond kindly.
Continuing the discussion on Afghanistan, Ms. Ward talked about the Western media focus on Kabul. Other parts of Afghanistan with less media coverage were celebrating the US leaving, and the Taliban takeover. The US military presence was not universally seen as benevolent. Ordinarily, across the country, it was associated with constant drone strikes and continued bloodshed. The question is, however, does the Taliban understand how to run the country? The Taliban does not have experience governing, nor the backing of the international community. There is a major economic crisis unfolding due to the lack of international funding. Furthermore, the Taliban is not an inclusive community. Their government has no women or ethnic minorities. For anyone whose life did improve over the last twenty years, such as women who made enormous strides in the last two decades, that all but disappeared with the transition of governments.
Speaking of women in conflict zones, Ms. Ward also spoke of her experiences as a female journalist. While many would expect it might be a disadvantage in the field, she felt it was an advantage being a female journalist. It helped her in conflict areas in which her male colleagues were perceived to be threatening spies or possible foreign adversaries. People underestimate women, and it becomes easier to blend into the crowd and attract less attention. Furthermore, she had access to fifty percent of the population in conflict zones which men did not have access to. Media in the past was a primarily male-based perspective in conflict zones, but with more female journalists in the field, more female voices are being represented. It has shifted the dialogue and conversation on different topics, and Clarissa Ward believes we need more diverse people within journalism in conflict zones in order to showcase stories from people who might otherwise not be represented.
Clarissa Ward finished the conversation by providing advice for students who wish to become journalists. Be humble and find a mentor who can guide you throughout your career. She warned future journalists of the emotional toll. Being a journalist requires personal sacrifice. In order to write your story you will miss weddings, funerals, parties, and your love life. It is not for everyone, but it is a rewarding career. Be curious, be open-minded. Be willing to listen. This includes decisions as small as getting news from multiple sources. A rich and diverse ecosystem of news provides multiple perspectives, rather than being told the one perspective you want to hear. Her second piece of advice is to be willing to learn. Learn how editing works. Learn how to work the visual medium. Learn on all fronts, not just about journalism and the art of storytelling. Learn how to make the stories accessible and human by building up character and finding moments that say a lot about a situation with very little. Make the audience feel connected to the story. Listen, learn, and be humble.
Written by Anushka Brito, GPI Undergraduate Fellow