Every semester, a few select Scripps College students are invited to apply to the Scripps College Humanities Institute. The Humanities Institute is just like any other class at Scripps, with one important caveat: the experts in the field of the institute’s focus are invited into the classroom to discuss and debate current events with the students. This semester, the theme of the Humanities Institute is the War on Terror, and its participants include prominent journalists, professors, and CEOs.
This past week, the Humanities Institute hosted Steve Negus, a journalist who worked in Egypt from 1993-2003, and in Iraq immediately after the American invasion. In a workshop he held with students, Negus emphasized the ways in which reporting has changed over time, with a broader emphasis being placed on the type of “on-the-ground” reporting that Negus does. Negus described how the traditional model of war reporting—done almost entirely by American correspondents, with little to no involvement with locals in the region—has been challenged in the past few years, and seen as increasingly problematic. Since 9/11, this model has changed alongside the definition of the conflict zone, specifically in places like Syria and Iraq.
“It used to be that in prior wars, there was usually something of a safe area,” Negus said. “This is where reporters could go—Saigon in Vietnam, Sarajevo in Bosnia—they would cover the story by moving within these areas to a large degree. By contrast, in Iraq and Syria, it’s very difficult for a foreigner to circulate. It depends where you are … but it’s chaotic enough that there is always the danger of abduction.”
TSL sat down with him to find out more about his own experiences, and opinions on the role of media in a conflict zone.
TSL: What was the environment like when you first arrived in Iraq, and how did that affect your ability to effectively do your job?
Negus: When I first arrived after the invasion, it was a very open country. Even though there were no police, most communities to some degree policed themselves. There weren’t that many professional criminals. It shows that for a short while many societies can cope with anarchy quite well, and Iraq in the first year, many communities organized themselves and it was relatively safe and fairly open. That changed because eventually criminal gangs did get organized, and recognized the value of abducting foreigners in particular … Once that happened, I had to restrict my movements and eventually moved from a house in Baghdad to a fortified hotel. There were four Iraqis with whom I worked very closely, who helped me gather information, and we took various precautions to prevent getting kidnapped in terms of how we drove, what we said … over time, as more and more people did get kidnapped, all media institutions in Iraq became more nervous.
TSL: How has the process of obtaining information changed?
Negus: When I did it, it was the same as you do ever. You go to places and you talk to as many people as you can with the time you have, and you report what they say, keeping in mind that you cross-check with different sources as best you can. With wars, you can’t be quite as fastidious as you would be. I had two Iraqi trainee reporters that worked with me that collected their own information and did their own reporting, and that was quite common.
Now, with Syria, it’s taken a step further, where people who have no formal training in journalism create their own networks of contacts within Syria, from different sites of the war. The foreign correspondent has gone from being a direct reporter to almost an editor, and I think that’s generally a good thing.
TSL: Did you ever experience a pressure to portray a certain narrative?
Negus: In so far as there’s bias in journalism, it’s much more subtle. It’s more towards portraying a narrative that works well as a story. Some stories are catchier than others, and often there’s institutional drift towards focusing on the narrative, and emphasizing certain events more than they should be emphasized, that kind of thing.
TSL: Were there ever any instances that you felt it was harmful to have this sensationalized narrative?
Negus: I felt in Egypt there was a strong drift towards portraying things getting out of control. Too much emphasis on the level of street crime, on Morsi, that under him radicalists became more confident and harassed people. There were economic issues, people were suffering economically, but it all was rolled into a narrative of things getting out of control. That’s a very common prelude to a coup d’état, and that was indeed the case in Egypt. There was a tendency to perhaps look at things like crime, and at radical Islamist behavior, as something being unique to this particular period and not something that had always happened in the background … the Egyptian press has the same narrative, but when it was echoed in the foreign press, it created a type of feedback. Things were bad under Morsi, there was no question of it. But it was more a question of things can’t just be bad, they have to be getting worse. And if you don’t take precautions of that in a story, that’s the thing that comes out.