Developing Word Pictures to Inform a Complex Story

Fleishman, Jeffrey
June 2004
Nieman Reports;Summer2004, Vol. 58 Issue 2, p52
This article presents a newspaper reporter's account of the importance of and the difficulties involved in foreign reporting. Ansar al-Islam, the extremist group of Kurds and Arabs that had been terrorizing northern Iraq, knew U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's assertions in his speech on February 5, 2003 meant cruise missiles would be aimed at the group's bases in Sargat. The terrorist organization decided it was time for some public relations of its own, so it invited a handful of international journalists to Sargat to inspect the cinder-block compound. We decided to take the chance. Foreign reporting is full of such exhilarating moments. The job of helping to unravel contradictions and putting them in context is vital to increasing U.S. citizens' understanding of a confusing world. Eighty percent of foreign reporting is about getting there. The rest--at least for me as a newspaper reporter--centers on sketching a sense of place and providing analysis of how what is happening here affects events of our time. Most Americans know a little about other countries and cultures. This means foreign correspondents must find ways to bring readers and viewers and understanding of other people and places by using more than cursory images and stock phrases. Often, the truth about complex and contentious stories--whether it be former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's weapons' capabilities or the ethnic hate that propelled the carnage in Rwanda--is found in a gray area that needs more explanation than a nut graf or a soundbite. Days after U.S. air strikes killed and routed hundreds of Ansar guerillas, I went back to Sargat. Ansar was--and remains--a dangerous terrorist organization in pursuit of jihad, a group that once sent a car bomb into a crowd of refugees. But it did not possess a deadly chemical arsenal. The U.S. intelligence was flawed. And foreign correspondents who could reach the mountains of northern Iraq were able to report what they saw.


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