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Author, Journalist Maria Armoudian Describes The Challenges Of Reporting In Hot Spots

Maria Armoudian
Brian Hardzinski
Maria Armoudian

Maria Armoudian’s first book explored the role radio played in exploiting deeply-held divisions between Hutus and Tutsis during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

Kill the Messenger: the Media’s Role in the Fate of the World argued media has the power to make peace and advance democracy, but it can also lead to propaganda and human rights abuses.

Listen To Maria Armoudain’s 2013 World Views Interview

Since the conclusion [of Kill the Messenger] was we needed ethical journalism, we need responsible journalism with responsible questions – how do journalists do their work?” Armoudian asked on KGOU’s World Views. “How do they choose their stories, and why do we get the stories that we get, and how do they navigate those situations?”

That question led Armoudian, who’s a lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and the host and producer of the public radio program The Scholar’s Circle, to her latest project. In Reporting From The Danger Zone: Frontline Journalists, Their Jobs, And An Increasingly Perilous Future, Armoudian tells the stories of more than 30 journalists in war zones and conflict areas. She argues they face even more risk now, since wars are far more chaotic than the state-vs.-state conflicts that largely ended in the 20th century.

“You don’t always know what territory you’re going into if you’re a journalist going to cover these things, and so there’s a lot of negotiation and navigation that wasn’t present in the past,” Armoudian said. “They take these risks to bring us information, mostly in the hopes that somebody will do something. And at a minimum, it’s to set the record straight.”

As the nature and landscape of conflict evolves, so too has technology. Armoudian says she’s not optimistic about the future of conflict journalism, because rebel groups, insurgents, and movements no longer rely on traditional media outlets to get their story and message out.

“This is why it’s – in their view – better to kill the journalists than to let them come in to do the interviews. They’re not needed,” Armoudian said. “I don’t advocate for censorship, but there has to be some sort of an international discussion about how words matter and how frames matter, without the idea of censorship but with some kind of structures of protecting the institution of journalism.”

Suzette Grillot Talks About The Arms Trade And Its Effects On Politics And Society On The Scholar’s Circle

KGOU's Audra Brulc contributed to this report

KGOU and World Views rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.


SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Maria Armoudian, welcome back to World Views. It's been a long time.

MARIA ARMOUDIAN: It is such a pleasure, Suzette. Thank you so much for having me here.

GRILLOT: Well last time we had a really interesting discussion about your first book, and we talked a lot about genocide and some of the issues in Rwanda and elsewhere. Now we're going to talk a little bit about your second book. As a journalist, you've written a book about the dangerous work that journalists do. You've interviewed a number of journalists, dozens of journalists, around the world -- not only foreign journalists, but local journalists. So tell us a little bit about what you did and why, and let's get into what the danger is they're facing, because we see that on the news today -- what they are facing.

ARMOUDIAN: Yes, so let's back up a little bit first. The whole point of this second book emerged from the first book, which the conclusion was "look, it's life and death if you have bad information or bad framing." And as you were saying, we talked about genocide last time, because in every case of a genocide - and a war - the war makers use mass media, use limited information, and skewed information, and often erroneous information, to make a target out of a particular group. We've also seen - and this came from the first book, "Kill the Messenger" - that when media is used in an ethical way, it can actually end wars. It can help to end wars. On it's own, it doesn't work, but it can make people stop and question: What is the point of this? Is this really the right thing to do? These are really human beings on the other side; do I really want to cause harm? And it can humanize people, which is what you actually need to have a peace process work. And so we've seen, in that book, out of those case studies, that media had been used for both good purposes - peacemaking purposes, human rights purposes, democracy purposes - and also, for less than positive purposes - the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide. So I wanted to get a little deeper into this. Since the conclusion was we need ethical journalism, we need responsible journalism, with responsible questions, too-- how do journalists do their work? And how do they choose the stories? And why do we get the stories that we get? And how do they navigate these situations? As you noted, it's extraordinarily dangerous - today, in many ways, more dangerous. And that's partly because wars have changed, so it used to be one country versus another country and you knew the territories and you got permission from the proper people to get into those territories. Well, you still have to get permission. But now, it's not really state versus state in the same way. It's much more chaotic. You don't always know what territory you're going into if you're a journalist going to cover these things, and so there's a lot of negotiation and navigation that wasn't present in the past. So yes, I interviewed about 32 journalists. Half were local, half were foreign correspondents. They were both genders. The women were fascinating too; they really were. All different ethnicities, and I tried to get as many regions as I could to get a good picture, even though there's some regions I just couldn't get representation from. Most journalists really had a public interest concern. Most of them were interested about human rights. They were concerned about humanity, and they do this work largely because of that. So they take risks that some of us, even though we're concerned also about human rights and humanity, and life and death-- but they take these risks to bring us information, mostly in the hopes that somebody will do something. And at minimum, it's to set the record straight. Because, as you know, when people go to war, they often use information that's often misinformation to help them win a war. So it's not necessarily true, what we get from either our governments or from rebel groups. And journalists-- part of their job is to go and say okay, this is what each side is saying. Is it true? And so, for example, one of the cases-- one of the interviewees, was Allan Little from BBC. And he had gone in during the first Gulf War, along with Marie Colvin, who you may have heard of, because she was shelled to her death by Bashar al-Assad-- so the Iraqi government had said the U.S. had shelled a group of civilians. The allied governments, the U.S., said no, that's not true, nobody was killed. And so they went, and they physically counted bodies. And they said look, let this be the end of the dispute. So this is one of the things that these journalists want to do, is set the record straight. There are other cases - for example, Roy Gutman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for this particular part of his work-- he was in Bosnia. He was the guy who really discovered these concentration camps. And so he told the story of how he came to find them, based on reading some material, thinking it rang true, and following up, asking a lot of questions, and physically going to these places. Well, his hope was that somebody [would] do something about this. And so he gave all his contacts to the other journalists, and he gave all the information so that it would create much more interest in it, and then they all started covering it. So it leaves us to question: well, what do we do without these journalists, right? The CIA didn't find these concentration camps. The Red Cross didn't find these concentration camps. It was a journalist. And so when they're not able to do their work, as is the case in many parts of the world today, then what are we left with in terms of knowing what's happening? That was part of it. Then there were many of these other cases-- there's a Syrian-American woman. I am just completely amazed by this young woman, maybe 30 years old, I'm guessing. She must remain anonymous because of the way she does her work, which is dangerous. But she uses a borrowed ID. She is of Syrian descent, so she blends in with the people. She wears the local attire, goes through the checkpoints. She goes right into the territory that she wants to cover, and tells these stories about what is happening to civilians in this process. Now, most of them also sort of gave up on somebody doing something. They feel like this has been going on for years, and no one is doing anything. And each side is acting worse than the other at this point, so at least we can set the record straight.

GRILLOT: So, you're suggesting journalists are our eyes and ears, right? I mean they're the ones that are out there, on the front lines, showing us what's happening around the world. But not all journalists are the same either, right? I mean, you've interviewed, I assume, a range of journalists, but-- journalism is so diffuse anymore. There are so many different venues and avenues. You've got your mainstream media, you have bloggers, you have all kinds of sources that you can trust and can't trust, you have people that have agendas, you have people that are more objective. How do you-- how do we sort through that? And then what are the mechanisms that we can use to promote more ethical, professional journalism.

ARMOUDIAN: You know, these are huge questions. I can say, first of all, even the mainstream outfits today are struggling with these questions. So, for example, one of the journalists, Carol Williams, who was at the Los Angeles times; she's just retired, long-time foreign correspondent, has covered from the times of Russia when Gorbachev was there, all the way into Afghanistan and Iraq-- and she says, "Given how they're all slashing budgets now, they're not even sending us out like they used to. So I went to Crimea," she said, and told the story of how she got the information. "But now they're not letting me go back, and they're expecting me to report based on these PR wires, like Associated Press type of things, but that comes out of Ukraine." And she says "in my history, that was called plagiarism." And so she's deeply uncomfortable with it. She said, "I thought it was just the LA Times. But the New York Times has got somebody doing exactly the same thing." So it is becoming so complicated now to get accurate information. Others have suggested "well, we've still got human rights groups out there: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, various human rights groups within particular countries, like Syria has one. So the expectation is well, we put our trust in the material that's coming out of them. We still have some journalists going in. But I have to tell you, it is a morass. And it is really complicated, and I don't know if I can answer that - "How do we sort through it?" - at this point, given that even the journalism institutions that have long held two or three sources before you go to print, before you air something-- now, we don't even know for sure that they're doing that. Very difficult. It's a tough time.

GRILLOT: Indeed. The media is a business. Big or small, it's a business--

ARMOUDIAN: --unless you're the BBC.

GRILLOT: Right, I mean you do have public access--


GRILLOT: --and NPR, of course. Thank you-- our own station here. But did you sense from these journalists that you interviewed that they're concerned about, around the world, this targeting of information toward their consumers? And that, when I said there are eyes and ears and they're looking at what's going on and they're telling us the story, hopefully in an objective way-- I mean, how objective can they be, really? Are they worried about the information that they're bringing back being targeted or edited or presented in a way that's going to a certain audience?

ARMOUDIAN: Yes, yes, and yes. All of the above. So first of all: they're humans. So as humans, we are not ever completely objective, right? They are guided by their own humanity most of the time, even in the story choices - what they choose to report is often the thing that compels them-- is an emotional story. It is hope, it is sometimes anger or outrage at what's happening. So would you call that objective? Maybe, maybe. Maybe not. It's still a human effort-- effort's not the right word, but a human sort of impulse. The second thing is yes, they are all mindful of how to present their information in a way that is appealing. So even if-- I'm trying to remember, there was a guy from Vice news who wanted to cover something in Burma, and he said, "nobody's going to be interested in this story in Burma, unless I attach it to something that people are interested in. So I attached it to Hillary Clinton, because of-- she's the person that we're talking about today, and I called it 'Asia's Apartheid.' Everybody understands apartheid." So there's that way of strategically framing, so that they can appeal to their audiences--

GRILLOT: So that they'll get an audience-- so that they'll make it through the editing process, right?

ARMOUDIAN: Absolutely. A lot of them fought with editors. One of the Emmy award-winning journalists, Terry McCarthy, told a story of-- they were embedded with an American Marine troupe, and they actually caught on tape one of the Marines getting blown up. And he survived it. His comrade did not. But they followed him from beginning to end, all the way into the hospital, and his own response to that - which was "hey, I screwed up." And the editors did not want to run it. They had pixelated all the blood and gore, and they said look, people need to know. This is a war, and people are going to die in war, including our people. So they fought with that until they finally won. So there are all kinds of-- and then certain countries have censors. A lot of people are surprised to hear that Israel still has military censors. So journalists are told that they can't publish unless they pass it through the censors. And some of them said, "I just published it anyway." So they have their ways of getting around it. Most of them, I found, had a deep commitment to getting their story out, one way or the other. Although most of them also agreed no story is worth your life.

GRILLOT: Well, in the last minute we have, can you tell me what you think-- now that you've been exposed, obviously to journalists for years; you are one yourself--

ARMOUDIAN: Was one, a long time ago, before the academic life.

GRILLOT: Was a journalist. But you've been studying journalism for a long time, and obviously very active in the media world-- your optimism about the future of the discipline, given the dangers, given all of these complicating issues that we've discussed - where do you think we're headed in this field?

ARMOUDIAN: You know, I think it's really complicated. I am not particularly optimistic. I think the Internet has created more problems, in some ways, than solutions, in that in the past, traditional journalists were needed by people to get their story out, especially rebel groups, because they had no access to media otherwise. Today, with the Internet, you see all of these groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, using the Internet-- they have direct access to their audiences. So they don't need journalists anymore. This is why it's, in their view, better to kill the journalists than to let them come in to do the interviews. They're not needed. They want to tell their story their own way, and they don't want any interference with that. So I don't advocate for censorship, but there has to be some sort of an international discussion about how words matter and how frames matter, without the idea of censorship but with some kind of structures of protecting the institution of journalism,

GRILLOT: Well, it's a long-standing industry, but still work to be done. Alright, Maria, thank you so much again for joining us here on World Views.

Copyright © 2016 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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