Reporting from war zones

High-tech communications have left journalists more connected, but introduce a new set of risks

by Patrick Cahill & Michael Boriero

A cool sea spray floats through the air, guided by a gentle breeze. The tall ship’s creaking timbers, fluttering sails, and cursing sailors go unheeded. The courier eyes the coast, thumbing critical documents that he has carried for weeks, ones that could potentially change the course of history.

In the early 19th century, breaking news took so long to travel that entire battles — the Battle of New Orleans comes to mind — were sometimes fought before the combatants learned a treaty had already been signed.

Nowadays, a war correspondent can edit photos on a laptop while barrelling down a dusty road near Mosul. After a day of dodging bullets and shooting photographs, the story still reaches an audience by prime time in North America.

“There are of course good aspects to [it], but there’s an inevitable trade off between depth and speed,” said John Beck, a freelance journalist and photographer based in Istanbul who covers conflict in the Middle East for publications such as VICE News, Newsweek, The Guardian and Al Jazeera.

For most conflict journalists, the immediacy of this type of reporting comes with a downside, condensed to a point where it has introduced new risks for on-the-ground reporters at the same time that it has increased the benefits for readers and publications. Reporting from the front, hash-tagging and snapping away, are some of the most connected war correspondents we’ve ever seen. And on the road to Mosul, the threat of danger is hard to ignore.

On a recent trip to Iraq, Beck was forced to reconcile the perks of near-constant connection and unprecedented technology with the challenges of a war zone. In the unsettling atmosphere of recently seized ISIS territory, he juggled his photography gear with his ballistic helmet, vest and gas mask.

A photo from Beck’s Instagram shows the bare pastel tiles of an ISIS torture chamber in a repurposed family home. Eerie surgical tubes dangle like spider webs from the ceiling. Beck describes Iraqi soldiers reenacting wrapping tubes around the victim’s neck and the stool being kicked from beneath their feet. And that’s just a passing image absorbed in the flick of a thumb scrolling through his feed.

“The advent of Internet news means that reporting is expected at a far faster and more regular pace,” Beck said via email. But when reporting from the front line, modernity has its limits.

“I was required to file that evening, but knew that mobile data access would be patchy at best,” he said about the Iraq trip. By the end of that day, after furiously editing photos in Adobe Lightroom on the car ride back to Erbil, Beck submitted around thirty successful images.

Beck, who doesn’t publicly share details about his private life, is often flown to war zones like Mosul to provide publications with images and stories from the front lines and uses modern technology to trail-blaze in what is a notoriously difficult enterprise. His Twitter feed keeps him up to date so he can find stories to chase; his Instagram is filled with astonishing images such as frightened Iraqi families boarding an army transport or the rubble of blown out buildings.

Conflict journalists like VICE News’ Aris Roussinos and Phil Caller, and even Beck himself, populate their Twitter and Instagram feeds with content from war zones. A photo or video of an historic event such as Iraqi forces advancing into Mosul can be uploaded on the fly.

Photos of burnt out buildings and charred corpses tell stories in 140 characters, with hashtags like #ISIS and #mosuloperation, offering viewers a glimpse inside the daily life of a conflict reporter. But not all tweets are created equal.

“Reporters and photographers use social media channels in different ways, some of which more closely resemble more traditional definitions of journalism,” Beck said. What doesn’t make it into his published pieces, he shares in small anecdotes on his Instagram feed. He has received offers because of his social media accounts, when editors spy his work by chance.

When he was working in Cairo, Beck also had a Blink account. That app’s website describes how editors can use the app to “connect with the world’s greatest storytellers and bring [their] stories to life.” Half social-media profile and half contracting platform, the software allows international freelancers to create a profile marketing themselves to publications in their area. It uses modern technology to bridge the gap for one of the greatest challenges freelancers face –finding steady work.

While they have their unique struggles, freelance correspondents also face similar challenges as freelancers everywhere: Increasingly, contract work puts the onus on the employee while depriving them the support of a company.

“It’s precarious, honestly,” Beck said. Concerns around interpreters, insurance, and security, were traditionally handled by a journalist’s publication. For piece-work freelancers on the frontline, the stakes are higher.

Beck said that when a publication doesn’t cover these costs, he is forced to take them on himself, often sharing them with a few other journalists. Stability for a minimum-wage-worker in a modern society is one thing, but for a war correspondent it can affect their very survival.

Security is obviously the chief concern for reporters in war zones. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) website, Syria and Iraq are the two deadliest countries to report from, with 18 slain reporters this year, so far. Furthermore, CPJ data shows that 40 per cent of the reporters who have died in Syria since 1992 were freelancers.

While consumers and publications enjoy a new rapid tempo, war reporters’ timeliness can sometimes mean danger. Any content generated in a war zone can have fatal implications.

In recent years, war journalists have had an increasingly large target on their back, as revealed by James Foley’s execution in Syria. The propaganda value of western prisoners for terror groups is one thing, but journalists are also often embedded within military units which may be targeted. Modern military and intelligence organisations actively seek out social media content of adversaries or those near them, and it’s often journalists caught in the crossfire.

“For security reasons, there usually isn’t genuinely ‘instant content’ on either of my feeds while working in conflict zones,” Beck said. An update posted publicly in real time could flag your location to people you might not want to run into. So Beck times his content carefully, posting it only after his location or the subjects of his photos are no longer relevant or at risk.

In the heart of a war zone, Beck keeps his head down and his ears open, doing his best to tell the story, with the inescapable burden and bounty of modern technology.