CBS foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward, who recently returned to the United States from Syria, visited Stony Brook on Monday, September 23 as the second speaker for the Marie Colvin Distinguished Lecture Series.
Ward remembered Marie Colvin as “the kind of journalist…who really gave us something to aspire to,” and whose reporting in Syria was “forever etching the suffering of those civilians into history.”
Over the past ten years, the 33-year-old’s reporting took her to places such as China, Russia, Afghanistan, Gaza and most recently, Syria. Ward recalled her senior year at Yale, when the September 11 attacks occurred. For her, that “changed everything” in her otherwise sheltered existence.
She explained, “Suddenly, I was like wait—things are happening in the world that are so important and are changing the way that we live, and they need to be paid attention to, and we need to be understanding these things better, and we need people who can act as…translators.”
Ward’s understanding of the Middle East began when she took Arabic lessons taught by a Yemeni woman who shared her take on Islam and the events of September 11.
“It was so mind-blowing to me and so inspiring, and it was really, I think, the first taste that I had been given of the Middle East and this region that we heard about all the time in the news and associated with death and destruction, but really understood so little about,” Ward said
In speaking of her motivation to be a reporter, she said, “I do it for the same reason that I love to learn languages because it affords me access to an intimacy with people in places that I might otherwise know very little about.” She later mentioned how some people are shocked “in a good way” when they hear an American speaking a little Arabic.
Ward described the ambiguous status that comes with being a female journalist in places like Syria, as she is not always held to the same regard as their women are, yet she is not treated how the men are either. She welcomes this as what she calls an “unusual freedom” because it gives her access to the women in those places and their perspectives.
However, she does face times when men will not address her. For example, when she interviewed a member of the Taliban, his only acknowledgment of her regarding her weight.
She addressed the misconception that war correspondents are all men, as the majority of people covering Syria are women. She added, “We’re here in honor of Marie, so girls dominate here.”
Ward does not think of her job as “cool” or “glamorous”. She discussed how the more frequently she faces danger like heavy artillery in conflict zones, her threshold for it lowers. She advised, “I get scared and that’s important because fear is there for a reason, people.”
In the wake of Marie Colvin’s death, Ward was often asked why she would put her life at risk to tell stories that are not her own. In choosing between risks and reward, she works to report on a story that is going to make an impact, referencing the work that Colvin was doing before she was killed.
Witnessing horrific events, brutality and danger does affect Ward emotionally, especially when she stays in the homes of those amidst of conflict. She explained, “And that’s why it’s important in conflicts to have people covering both sides of a conflict because there are obvious limitations to what you can do and what you can see and what you can report…”
When asked if she faces backlash on stories, as she did with her piece on Aleppo for “60 Minutes”, she said, “I think you have to learn not to take it personally and if both sides are really angry at you, it means you’re doing a good job.”
Although she reports on serious issues, Ward demonstrated her humor and quick wit throughout the event. When asked if she had advice for her old self, she said “Bring granola bars,” as her job is not for picky eaters.