The Eyes & Ears of The Story: The Image of a War Correspondent

“Why am I doing this? I’m scared to death.” Andy Rooney, a well-known war correspondent and a member of The Writing 69th, put into words what so many correspondents felt and continue to feel when reporting a war. 

War correspondents are the first eyes, ears, and the first people to tell a story. Without people like Andy Rooney, Ernie Pyle, and so many others, many Americans would not know what they now know, had the terrors and ugly truths of war been unreported.

Not only do war correspondents tell the public about what was happening, but they also tell the world about themselves. Many journalists report the happenings of war, but they do it with their own personal style, and have not always been lucky enough to see the effects of their writing on those back home.

The best reporters at the time of the Spanish-American War were ones who had unique styles of writing that stood out from the rest, such as Richard Harding Davis. Oftentimes, the reporter can see something that no one else can see, and his or her job is to inform the people and make them feel something. However, in order to write something meaningful, one has to be close enough to see it. As Robert Capa said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” If the correspondent is successful, their work has a great effect on those who are privy to it.

War correspondents have the opportunity to change the way people think about war. In the earlier days of war reporting, quality reporting helped garner support for war. However, informing the public about the horror and danger of war can be a tricky business. Being close to the story is essential, but it also comes at a cost. “There was a certain feeling of guilt that most of the reporters had,” Andy Rooney said. The soldiers that these correspondents work alongside do not have the option of leaving the scene if it is too traumatic, nor do the civilians in villages and cities that have turned into war zones. “It doesn’t feel good to put your camera in the face of people who had been wounded. People are crying out for everything, and you’re just there with a camera,” Des Wright explained. This poses the issue of what to report and what to keep to one’s self.

“When we’re asked about what it was like [to report] we just say it was fine. We brush it off, so people think ice runs through our veins and that’s complete crap. You cannot describe what it was like, it’s just not possible.” Carlos Mavroleon, a war correspondent, explained how many correspondents feel. Often, it is not possible to report exactly what happened. Even if one did, it will not be the same as seeing it in person. As Des Wright put it, the people “can hear it and see it, but you can’t smell it.” Many journalists struggle with what is right and wrong, or ethical to report, which sometimes prohibits them from telling certain stories. But it is more common now for correspondents to discuss the gory details, as they are significantly less censored today than in years past. Correspondents still, however, censor themselves, because most people only want to hear about the heroes and successes. In the mind of the reporter, success had a complex definition. Robert Capa said, “I remember being irritated by what headquarters said that it was a success.” It technically was, but being on the scene made it difficult to see such destruction and death as a success.

In regards to the attitudes of war correspondents, they are people with a strong sense of bravery and determination. Corinne Dufka confirmed this attitude when she said, “You operate under this idea that nothing will happen to you.” As soon as war breaks out, correspondents want to be at the scene to do what their job entails: tell a story. And the great war reporter makes a narrative out of a story that cannot be told. Being a reporter is a mission of public service, commitment, and sacrifice. Covering a war is just like fighting a war; what happens, happens at an explosive speed, and one does not get a second take on reality.

Though the profession is rewarding in ways that are indescribable to those who do not experience it for themselves, it takes its toll on correspondents in various ways. Some, like Ernie Pyle, find that they have had enough, choose to leave while they can, and never go back. Pyle stated, “I don’t believe that I could go through that again, and keep my sanity.” Don McCullin said, “I was really a broken man half the time of my life,” and, “I was just there as an observer. That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less.” Regardless of one’s experience, it is unlikely to be forgotten.

Many feel a strong connection to what is happening. Martin Bell, who covered eleven wars in his career, explained that, “We are not apart from the world of war, we are a part of it.” But he also said, “I don’t miss it. I never enjoyed being shot at and being in danger.” 

Christiane Amanpour, a war correspondent known for her fearlessness, stated in an interview that, “There are certain people who have to do a certain thing, and it’s very difficult to explain.” A big reason many war correspondents choose to stay in the profession is that they are simply drawn to it. These correspondents often have personal goals that they want to achieve. David Guttenfelder, in regards to this, said, “When you’re younger, you really want people to see what you’ve seen, and you want to make a difference with your photos. We’re journalists. We’re not there to take pictures of misery and violence. We’re there to help change things, if possible.” 

Reporting a war is no easy task. Jacqueline Arzt Larma stated, “It does funny things to your mind. You have to, at first, accept it yourself that someone’s just sniped this little boy just for no reason..and that’s just it, that’s his whole story. And then you have to think, ‘do i need a flash in here?’ It sort of grounds you; your brain saves you.” 

Larma also said, “I think this job is about public service, it’s a privilege. It’s a privilege to go to a place and educate people.” Many war correspondents have a strong sense of pride in what they do. “I was prepared to die for my country, to liberate this country through the pictures that come through my lens, because I was liberating myself.” (Peter Magubane)

Mohamed Shaffi stated, “It has made me proud that my pictures or the pictures of my colleagues who have risked their lives and done this hard work…has saved lives. That is the main thing. I’m proud that my life has not been wasted being a camera man in Africa.”

Due to their attitude of fearlessness, many war correspondents can be seen as having very little emotion. But that is not typically the case. Rather, it is important to remain objective and keep one’s emotions in check. Peter Magubane spoke on this in an interview and said, “In my profession, if you do not forgive, you will not be able to portray your subject properly, because you will be walking around with hatred. Being a documentarian, you have to pull yourself out of it so that you capture the right moments. If you kept involved emotionally, you would not be able to do your job.”

The job of a war correspondent is not one for the light of heart. It takes determination, dedication, and a desire to make a difference. War correspondents are not simply journalists and reporters. Many have died in order to tell a story, and because of this, they are heroes.

“I’ve come out of the war zone with optimism, because you’re witness to the heroism of a lot of people. Aid workers, soldiers and civilians. Even journalists.” —Martin Bell



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