NPR's Kelly McEvers struggled with intense, unexpected emotions during the Arab Spring, when friends were being kidnapped and worse. It made her wonder, why do otherwise intelligent people risk their lives to report on conflicts?
In early 2011, I started seeing things in slow motion. I cried unpredictably. It was the time of the Arab uprisings. Colleagues and friends were getting kidnapped. Some were getting killed.
But still, I went toward the story. The next year, 2012 was one of the deadliest years on record for journalists. It was a huge hit to the "tribe" of conflict correspondents of which I am a part. These are people who choose to go to war, to put themselves at risk. But we also enjoy the role, the adrenaline, the life. Some of us have children.
As I reported in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, I recorded the tear-gassings, the gunfire, the explosions. I also turned the microphone on my own life, recording diaries and seeking advice from doctors, scientists and colleagues. My goal was to answer one question: Why do otherwise intelligent people risk their lives, when they don't have to?
Nearly two years later, in collaboration with independent producer Jay Allison of Transom.org, the result is a documentary radio hour called "Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondent's Dilemma."
To understand how many of us persuade ourselves to be conflict correspondents, consider a story. It was told to me by a former British soldier, who now works as a security adviser for media companies. She told me this story as we drove through rebel-held Syria.
She was working with a major news organization in Baghdad, during some of the most violent years of the Iraq War. She was a trained medic, and it soon became clear she needed to order some body bags. Iraq is hot in the summer. The logistics of repatriating a body in wartime were a challenge.
To put it bluntly, if someone died, she was going to need a place to store his or her body for a few days, while she worked out how to get that body home. But she knew how controversial this would be. So she ordered the bags and hid them at the bureau. Sure enough, a producer stumbled upon the bags.
And freaked out.
The security adviser tried to explain, but the whole situation ended in a row.
"This is the crux of the problem," she later told me. "As a soldier, I'm prepared for death. I have to be. I have my will in order, I know exactly what my insurance will cover, I have written that letter to my family — just in case. I make no pretense about the fact that this work could end in death."
"You people?" she said, referring to journalists. "You are all in denial."
It's a story that rings true. Every time I go into a dangerous situation, I try to think of the consequences, but I also have an air of invincibility involved. "There's no way that could happen to me," I often tell myself. "I'll be smarter than that guy was."
This is why when a journalist dies in conflict, we are outraged. We are furious that they died. We ask for investigations and inquiries. While I know this might be a controversial thing to say, perhaps our anger is misplaced. Perhaps we should all be willing to accept that if a reporter is going into conflict, that reporter might die?
Perhaps instead of pretending this could never happen, we should assume it will happen. We should prepare ourselves. Making this piece was about my own journey, my own decisions, but I also hope it will help the next shift of conflict correspondents, who are going into this for the first time.
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
Throughout the last several years, NPR correspondent Kelly McEvers has been covering the uprisings that grew out of the Arab Spring. She's been in Yemen and Bahrain. She's essentially embedded with Syrian rebels in that country's civil war. Here she is among protesters getting tear gassed in Bahrain. It's an unscripted moment in a frightening situation.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: OK, now we're hiding.
(SOUNDBITE OF A GUNSHOT AND SCREAMS)
MCEVERS: Oh, Jesus Christ.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: They're shooting in the house.
NEARY: That tape was used in the report she filed for NPR. But then she recorded this.
MCEVERS: It's one of those day, you know, where across the Arab world people are getting tear gassed and beaten. And part of you is, like, feeling what they feel and knowing what they know. It's really important to be able to tell the story. But is it really worth it? I don't, I don't know.
NEARY: That part of the tape is from Kelly's new documentary, "Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondent's Dilemma."
After a year of stressful embeds, she grappled with the question of why foreign correspondents do what they do - put themselves in danger to tell stories and, in the end, is it worth it? She joins us now from Illinois, where she's taking a rare stateside break.
Good to have you with us, Kelly.
MCEVERS: Well, thanks for having me.
NEARY: Let's start at the beginning of your story, which is why did you want to be a war correspondent in the first place?
MCEVERS: That's a really good question. I didn't want to be a war correspondent. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. And then I found myself in the middle of this thing that turned into conflict, you know. I mean, you're covering these people who, you know, feel like they've been dormant for generations. And all of a sudden they want to topple their dictators. And they're taking to the streets by the hundreds of thousands. I mean, that was an amazing story, even though a lot of them, you know, didn't win, and they were met with violence and horrible detentions, and things ended up turning up into a really bad conflict.
So I don't think I wanted to be a war correspondent. I think I just kind of ended up as one.
NEARY: But in this documentary you talk about the fact that people who do cover these kinds of stories, these kinds of conflicts, on the one hand there's a thrill to it. On the other hand, there's a sense of mission. What's happening now in your life that's making you pull back from wanting to do this kind of thing?
MCEVERS: Well, I think there's a whole lot of things, right? I think that what happens to most people after they've done this for a long time is they start to realize that there might be other things that are also important in the world. And for me, it was, you know, I'm getting older. I'm tired.
MCEVERS: And, you know, I have a child.
NEARY: You know, one of the most compelling interviews in this documentary is one you did with the daughter of foreign correspondent David Blundy. Her name is Anna Blundy and her father was killed in El Salvador. We're going to listen to some tape, an excerpt of that interview, to hear what she had to say about his decision to put himself in harm's way:
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO DOCUMENTARY, "DIARY OF A BAD YEAR")
NEARY: What was that like for you to hear that, Kelly?
MCEVERS: It was extremely difficult interview. You know, her father died decades ago and she's still angry and hurt. So I mean, you know, here was my own child confronting me, you know, 40 years later, saying...
MCEVERS: ...you know, I'm really mad at you for doing this job.
NEARY: I wanted to ask you also about people who are covering wars who are not foreign correspondents, who are covering conflicts in their own countries. They have a very different kind of mission, I would think. And where do they fit into your thinking about all this? Or do they? Is this a completely different kind of reporting?
MCEVERS: I mean, these are people we spend every single day with, you know, the citizen journalists, the local journalists who are covering these conflicts. I think one of the things that I wanted to accomplish with doing this piece was not just to gaze at my own navel and talk about my own problems, but to bring some of these ideas out into the open more. We have to just say it out loud that these are very risky jobs. You could die doing this work. That means you need to plan.
You know, in this piece, I sit down and I write a letter to my family because that's the right thing to do, in case something happens to me. You know, it's not a pleasant thing to do but it's the right thing to do.
NEARY: Kelly McEvers, NPR's award-winning Middle East correspondent. Her new radio documentary is called "Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondent's Dilemma."
MCEVERS: Thanks, Kelly. It was good talking with you.
NEARY: And you can hear Kelly McEvers' documentary on npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.