What six CBC international correspondents experienced in the past year of foreign reporting.

By Erich Engert

When CBC Radio World Report host David Commons interviewed six foreign correspondents about how they covered some of 2014’s most harrowing events—from Ebola to Ukrainian-Russian conflict to struggles in Gaza—listeners were invited behind the scenes, too. 

The CBC’s Backstory 2014 series ran at the end of last year on The National, CBC Radio and at cbcnews.ca. In each episode, reporters Susan Ormiston, Nahlah Ayed, Paul Hunter, Derek Stoffel, Adrienne Arsenault and Margaret Evans shared examples of the dangers, challenges and moral dilemmas they faced while on the job abroad.


EPISODE 1: A job without a plan 

When a story lands on CBC correspondents’ desks, their personal lives are put on hold.

Most of the time they aren’t entirely sure when the story will be over, or when they’ll be returning home. The reporter is completely at the mercy of events as they unfold, no matter how complex they may be.

When Susan Ormiston stepped onto Ukrainian soil in the spring of 2014, many believed government forces had killed 80 people in Independence Square. 

In her talk with Commons, Ormiston explained that for the four weeks that followed, there was so much change that it was difficult to keep up with the story. One day the president was in, the next he was missing. Another day the president fled, and the next saw an ex-rival coming out of prison.

“It’s all changing, which makes it terribly exciting but very difficult because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You can’t predict and you can’t plan,” said Ormiston.


EPISODE 2: When the story surrounds you

While immersed in reporting in eastern Ukraine, Winnipeg-born Nahlah Ayed told Commons she saw echoes of home. Along with the flat landscape, the first Ukrainian home she visited on Easter morning had similar Easter decorations to the ones she found in her own home in Canada.


Of course, not everything that surrounded the CBC correspondents in the field was this pleasant. That’s why, to keep safe, they train in advance for hostile environments. But even with training, they are not entirely prepared for everything they will face. 

Paul Hunter, for instance, talked with Commons about a close encounter he and Derek Stoffel had with two missiles that hit a building near the apartment where they had just arrived.

“When you go out, you have a plan before you go out and you stick to that plan and you go as fast as you can to get where you’re going,” said Hunter. “You don’t stay very long where you are, you do your business and you leave and you come back as quickly as you can.” 

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EPISODE 3: Emotional moments

Coming to the aid of a source who is in distress is often not something a journalist can do without damaging the need for unbiased reporting—or keeping safe. 

When Adrienne Arsenault interviewed Ebola-infected people in their homes in Liberia during the outbreak, it was especially difficult. If a toddler would reach for Arsenault’s pant leg, someone would have to pull them away, or she would have to do it herself. One touch, in this case, may be the difference between infection and staying healthy. This was a tough situation for Arsenault: it reminded her of other times and places abroad when she’d take pictures of children, show them the pictures and they’d run off laughing and giggling. In Liberia in 2014, however, there were no laughs or giggles.

But there were emotional bright spots last year, too. In Ukraine, Ormiston made a four-legged friend after her car was swarmed by men with guns warning her of possible conflicts between Ukrainian and rebel forces in the direction she was driving. The crew opted to turn their car around, but before they could drive off, Ormiston recalls how the scariest of the men pulled open the car door and shoved his dog inside. “Save my dog. At least my dog will live,” he told Ormiston.


EPISODE 4: Getting out—and coming home 

Hunter will only leave a country when the story has been told, or if it becomes too dangerous to stay. 

While in Gaza last year, Hunter and his crew decided the situation required them to leave. As he, his group and a couple of dozen other journalists were bussed out to a working airport through the deserted streets of Gaza, shells and missiles were falling around them and the smell of gunpowder from fired shells was heavy in the air. The ceasefire hadn’t yet kicked in, so the bus was forced to avoid craters. As the bus sped along, Hunter said it seemed the shelling became heavier and there were more tanks. 

Then there are times when the story comes home with you. When Arsenault and her crew returned home to Toronto from Liberia, they were immediately segregated and put into a condo near the CBC’s offices.  There they spent a majority of their days and nights, only leaving for a fresh air. They were not under quarantine, but fear of Ebola was present in Canada. When Arsenault was feeling cold and went out to a store to buy a jacket, she saw first-hand the way people here viewed the disease.

“I was in a store looking at a jacket and I’d turned around and a woman looked at me and clocked who I was,” said Arsenault. “Maybe it’s just me, but she grabbed her husband and bolted to the other side of the store. Like she was completely either horrified, angry or petrified. I didn’t know what it was, but definitely there was fear in that.”


EPISODE 5: Why go to war?

So the big question: Why do journalists go to war? Correspondents risk their lives to get the stories around the world and bring them to Canadians. 

“The fact of the matter is, you’re going to a very dangerous place and you don’t have to but you’re going there,” said Hunter. “And we go there because altruistically there’s value in telling people what’s going on in these places.”

In today’s world, the need to go to these places and risk the reporter’s life may seem less necessary. Anyone can upload information. But there will always be a need for reporters, explained Ayed. There are plenty of Canadians who would prefer to hear or read the news from a Canadian perspective, she said, which can only be given if a Canadian journalist can see these events themselves.


[[{“fid”:”3695″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 100px; height: 90px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”},”link_text”:null}]]Erich Engert is a freelance journalist interning at The Telegram in St. John’s for March and April of 2015. He attended the University of Ottawa and Algonquin College joint program in Journalism.