Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalists C.J. Chivers and Tyler Hicks discussed their experiences as war reporters in Ukraine, Syria and on other fronts.
The Wednesday night conversation, held in the Intercultural Center Auditorium, was the inaugural event in the Georgetown journalism program’s Salim El-Lozi Lecture Series. The lecture series honors the memory of El-Lozi, a Lebanese political journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in 1980 for voicing his criticism of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi. Each lecture to follow in the series will focus on international freedom of the press and the First Amendment.
Chivers, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating college in 1987, began reporting in 1995. He has reported as a foreign correspondent from Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia and Uzbekistan. Hicks is a photojournalist who is currently based in Kenya but has covered news in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, among others since 1992.
The event was moderated by Alex Horton (COL ’14), a lecturer in the journalism program, who began by asking Chivers and Hicks about their understanding of journalistic ethics in a war zone. Chivers said that he and Hicks avoided interfering with the squads that took them into the field, and that he was constantly concerned that his curiosity might endanger the lives of others.
“From the moment you’ve diverted the activity or the direction or the decisions of the people you’re with, if anything happens it’s on your soul,” Chivers said.
The two returned multiple times to a particular incident in Afghanistan in which they went out with a patrol. One of the men on the patrol was killed in a surprise ambush. Hicks, who had to swim across a river and nearly became hypothermic, remembers it as one of the worst nights of his life.
“It takes a lot to go out there, physically, emotionally, to put yourself in that place,” Hicks said. “Months of planning, and then you want to document what’s happening, you want to have a record, especially when there has been a causality. These guys deserve to have their stories told.”
“You’re in a tunnel, everything vanishes,” Chivers said of the ambush. “You have to toggle between your safety concerns, which are constant, and being able to inform the reader you’re out there because you’re not out there for you, you’re out there for your readers. Everything you do has to have a journalistic purpose.”
Chivers and Hicks reflected on how journalism has changed in recent years, specifically focusing on new threats to journalists in the field. When unable to travel with American forces, Chivers and Hicks began performing detailed risk assessments before entering conflict zones.
“Before we would do the trip we had thought through as many contingencies as we could have,” Chivers said. “That’s not going to protect you. What it does is it builds hesitation into what you’re doing and it has a plan so somebody is working on it if something goes wrong … but you can’t anticipate all the risks.”
When Hicks and Chivers were reporting in Syria in 2013, the Syrian Civil War had escalated, making it extremely unsafe to report in the country. Hicks said that it is important for a journalist to recognize when to leave a situation if it becomes too dangerous.
“You get to a point where you can’t work in a place anymore,” Hicks said. “There is no way I would go there now. It would be irresponsible for me and everyone around me. It’s literally suicide to go there now as a Westerner.”
Hicks also spoke about his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of the 2013 Westgate Nairobi mall massacre. As the decision to enter the mall was spontaneous, Hicks was unable to make detailed risk assessments or contingency plans.
“I can’t deny that it’s a selfish act to go and take that kind of chance. It’s selfish because if something happens to me, my family and my friends have to deal with the consequences,” Hicks said.
Chivers and Hicks both emphasized that they did not want to glamorize war reporting.
“[War reporting is] exceptionally dangerous. It’s not as valuable as people would have you believe,” Chivers said. “It is part of a mosaic of understanding a conflict. The frontline experientialist approach is an element … but it is no more important than covering the mosques and the schools.”
The consequences of war reporting extend far beyond bodily harm. When an audience member asked how Chivers and Hicks cope with what they have seen and experienced in the field, they spoke about the challenges they and their peers faced when they returned home from war zones.
“It’s not a good line of work and it’s not good for you, and I would say a huge fraction of our peer group — and we would include ourselves in that fraction — are screwed up,” Chivers said. “The alcoholism rates, the divorce rates, the substance abuse rates, the problems with coping and the various understandable afflictions that beset people who are exposed to trauma and violence.”
“I’m a very different person than I was before this type of work,” Hicks said. “You feel less entitled to have certain pleasures in life and that starts to affect your family. It’s a difficult transition. … It’s terrible being in these places; you find yourself in so much heightened stress and fear.”
A former Marine squad leader in the audience asked Chivers and Hicks if they ever reached the point where they felt they had to put down the camera to help the soldiers around them.
“There have been a few times when we have stepped in,” Chivers said.“Those are exceptionally rare. We’ve carried stretchers of wounded guys, we’ve applied bandages, we’ve held hands of people and poured water into the mouths of people who were shot or wounded. We’re human beings first.”
Alexandra Chinchilla (SFS ’15) and Bianca DiSanto (MSB ’17) both said that they were struck by the honest commentary Chivers and Hicks shared.
“I was really surprised that they were that honest. They sat down with us and they told us basically, ‘Don’t go into this profession because the risks have changed and there is an emotional cost to it,’” Chinchilla said.
“I am not from a journalism background or interest remotely, so it brought up a lot of issues and ethical questions that I had never really considered before,” DiSanto said. “A lot of it resonated with me and it felt very real and raw.”