Foreign correspondents Lindsey Hilsum and Anne Barnard discussed news coverage of the conflict in Syria and the life of war reporter Marie Colvin on Tuesday, Dec. 4 as part of the School of Journalism’s “My Life As” speaker series.
Referring to Colvin’s reporting from the grounds of Syrian conflict that led to her death, “Let’s be honest, Marie would be horrified to know that this is still going on,” Barnard, the New York Times Beirut Bureau Chief, who has been reporting on the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the conflict, said. “The Syrian war is not ending right now. It’s just moving into another phase.”
In 2012, Long Island native Marie Colvin was killed while reporting on the Syrian civil war. Seven years since the conflict began in the wave of Arab Spring, about half a million people have died and more than 11 million Syrians have been displaced internally or externally, according to the United Nations. The fighting continues today.
Barnard said the ripple effect of the conflict will be felt around the world for many coming years in global politics, warfare, humanitarian issues, the very nature of truth and journalism.
“I don’t know a single person covering Syria who hasn’t asked themselves … if we’re even getting it right, does it make a difference? Is it worth the risks to us and to our sources?” Barnard said.
Some argue that none of the coverage makes a difference, but others contend that the reporting at least mattered for the people being impacted, Barnard said.
One hundred and eighteen journalists have died in Syria because of their work since Colvin’s death, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Bringing atrocities to light doesn’t always stop them,” Barnard said. “Journalists aren’t not that powerful as much as we’d might like to be.”
Barnard shared her experience reporting on the conflict, which included spending hours talking to Syrians who were tortured and people who escaped the country with their family. She said online information and contacts have played a significant role in the news reporting process, although the journalists needs to navigate around misinformation and unverified sources.
“I would take a break from my home office and go to the next room to tuck in my kids,” Barnard said. “They have the same usual nighttime fears many kids have. I’m telling them they’re safe, you’ll be fine. And then, I go back to my desk in the next door, continue my chat or my phone conversation with another mother who’s saying the same thing to her kids — but she’s not sure she’s telling the truth.”
Barnard pointed out that more women are working as foreign correspondents to cover conflicts in the Middle East. But that shouldn’t be the focus, Hilsum, from Channel 4 News in London who wrote a book on Marie Colvin, said. Referring to Colvin, “she never let being a women stand in her way,” Hilsum said.
“We are not women journalists, nobody even talks about a man journalist, nobody talks about a male war reporter, they talk about female reporter,” Hilsum said. “Well, maybe now that so many women are doing this, maybe that will stop. Maybe we will come to the conclusion that we did many years ago, just that we’re normal.”
Nada Makdisi, a Stony Brook University alumna, said she lived through the Lebanese war that Colvin covered and had been following the news in Syria and the region.
“It’s [a] heartwarming thing to know that people care,” Makdisi said. “These journalists, these women, really care and the fact that [Barnard] sits on her computer talking to these people who are trapped in certain areas not knowing if they will live tomorrow. It’s the biggest thing probably in their life in that moment to be able to talk to somebody outside the world that can bring their story into the world, because what else can you do if you’re trapped there with a shelling going on?”
Colvin’s sister, Cathleen “Cat” Colvin, was also present at the event. “I think having a journalism school is something Marie would have loved, and it’s just an amazing tribute to her legacy,” she said referring to the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting on campus. “And I really appreciate everyone [for] coming out.”
Although it is hard to measure the true impact of a news story, overcoming the challenges of logistical issues, time restraints and verifying the information to get the story right, for Hilsum, she said it was all worth it.
“I think information is always better than ignorance,” Hilsum said. “The importance of doing the story is that they should never be able to say afterwards that they didn’t know. They knew … they knew because we told them, because we were there. And that ultimately I think is what matters.”
Brianne Ledda contributed reporting.