Sylvia SquairWhether reporting abroad or in “hot spots” in their own backyard, four CBC journalists agree that talking is the key to coping with reporting from danger zones. Sylvia Squair reports on an International Women’s Day event featuring CBC’s Nahlah Ayed, Alison Smith, Connie Watson and Laurie Graham.

Sylvia SquairWhether reporting abroad or in “hot spots” in their own backyard, four CBC journalists agree that talking is the key to coping with reporting from danger zones. Sylvia Squair reports on an International Women’s Day event featuring CBC’s Nahlah Ayed, Alison Smith, Connie Watson and Laurie Graham.

It was springtime in Iraq, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein. CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed and her camera crew were covering Ashura, a Muslim day of mourning that had been suppressed for decades. It’s usually a sober time, but this day the people of Baghdad were almost jubilant as they poured into the streets. Ayed and her crew were swept along, buoyed by the euphoria of the crowd.

Suddenly there was an explosion. Everyone looked toward the Golden Dome Mosque and watched in horror as the majestic landmark crumbled and fell in on itself. In an instant, jubilation turned to shock and rage. The crowd went wild. Anyone who didn’t belong was a target. Ayed and her team were separated in the throng, and Ayed was badly beaten. The experience left her deeply shaken.

“It’s something that’s very, very personal,” she said, “to be physically attacked and harmed by people you were in awe of five minutes ago.”
Ayed joined fellow CBC journalists Alison Smith, Connie Watson and Laurie Graham in a panel at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto recently to discuss women journalists working in international hot spots. Moderated by Peter Armstrong, the group shared their perspectives with a sold-out audience.

The women were passionate about getting the story in the midst of danger, and regaled their listeners with tales of penetrating deeper into the action.

The need for personal safety – both physical and emotional – was a recurring theme. Each woman had developed skills for survival in a very different world. Watson described the need for heightened awareness at all times, and cautioned that one should never relax into regular tasks.
“This means you don’t bend into the trunk of your car without a trusted friend to watch over you, it means no iPods, it means you don’t go to the bank without making sure no one is watching you,” she said.

The strain of hyper-vigilance can take its toll. Watson told of reporting from refugee camps in Afghanistan and being immersed in the filth, starvation and suffering that was their daily life. Through some quirk of scheduling, the next day she found herself in Las Vegas. Coming from a place of severe deprivation and dropping into a carnival of conspicuous consumption was too surreal. Watson said she was catatonic for two days.

The panel agreed that extended time in news hot spots poses an invisible and lasting threat to emotional safety. Curiously, it is coming home that presents the biggest challenge, said Smith.
“Getting involved in the story is not the problem,” she said. “Coming back is always harder, having to transition into someone that rides the subway every day.”

That said, seasoned journalists know that hot spots can pop up in their own backyard. Graham recalled being en route to her new posting in Nova Scotia. Her plane landed in Halifax within minutes of Swiss Air Flight 101 crashing into the ocean southwest of the city. The story became one of international grief, of recovering body parts, of makeshift morgues.

“All I could think about,” said Graham, “was that my plane landed.”

The most important coping tool for journalists working with stories like this is talking about what they’ve seen, said Ayed. And not just once, but over and over. It’s been years since Ayed was attacked in Baghdad and she is still processing the event.

Talking it out is an important technique that’s increasingly supported within the industry, said Armstrong.

“It’s not cool to NOT talk about it,” he said.

Sylvia Squair is a freelance journalist and videographer currently based in London, Ont.. She worked for many years as an engineer in heavy industry before completing a graduate degree in Journalism at Western.

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Hot Zone Reporting 101
The panel had practical advice for anyone planning to report from the world’s hot zones. Suggestions include packing food and water supplies, a flak jacket, a headlamp flashlight, and a Leatherman tool or Swiss army knife. When indoors in areas of frequent bombing, always leave the windows open at least a crack to prevent them shattering from the back-pressure.

Freelancers should take care to leave a trail, ensuring that at least one trusted person knows where they are at all times. If possible it’s always better to piggy-back with another organization, joining a TV crew when working as a print journalist for example. And be aware that international organizations such as Reporters Without Borders offer freelancers much-needed medical, accident and war-risk  insurance.

You can hear more stories from hot zone reporters at the CJF Forum “Stories from Haiti” on Tuesday, March 16 in Toronto.