Foreigners First

When Washington Post correspondent Daniel Williams was nearly killed by Iraqi insurgents, the paper’s foreign editor, Philip Bennett wrote that covering Iraq is unlike any other war zone:

Good reporting is as urgently needed as ever, with lives and the political futures of perhaps two countries at stake. But it has never seemed more dangerous. Kidnappings and ambushes have driven most foreign civilians out of the country, or into bunkers guarded by U.S. soldiers. For journalists, the familiar rules of engagement have been stripped away. Gone is the assumption that correspondents are more valuable as witnesses than as targets, and that they share only the risks that all civilians face in wartime. To insurgents, foreign journalists are foreigners first, just another element of an occupying force to which we don’t belong….

It is worth asking whether these conditions make coverage overly negative, expressing journalists’ oppressive sense of siege, or too complacent, reflecting the reporters’ estrangement from Iraqis and their lives. As an editor spending a few days in Baghdad with Post correspondents and local staff, I didn’t see evidence to support either view. But I was struck that what is invisible in Iraq now feels much larger than what is visible.

Courageous reporting is necessary in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gaza Strip. But if a reporter’s mental stress can impact coverage, we have to wonder about the accuracy of what’s presented. The Post published Williams’ account of Friday’s ambush on the dusty desert highway between Falujah and Baghdad.