"In war zones the word is spread by extremist groups that journalists are on one side or the other"

The life of a broadcast journalist reporting from the frontlines is increasingly becoming difficult. Not only does one have to adapt to different cultures but in countries like Iraq, terrorists of late see journalists as being perfectly legitimate targets for attack..

One man who has a lot of experience in covering news on the battle zone is CNN's senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson. Apart from assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has covered some of the most important events around the world. Over the years, he covered the Northern Irish peace process, conflicts in the Balkans, refugee exodus from Kosovo in Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia, the invasion of Haiti, genocide in Rwanda, and 2001 Indian earthquake in Bhuj.'s correspondent Ashwin Pinto caught up with Robertson who has over 14 years of journalistic experience to find out about the changes in broadcast journalism and measures being taken to ensure safety on the field. In a candid chat, Robertson also reflected on how the internet is changing the medium of journalism and technological advances.


Firstly, how did an electrical and electronic engineer land up becoming a broadcast journalist?

I was always interested and fascinated by news. And CNN is a very good organisation for getting the best out of people. When they see someone who is willing to work hard they are given the opportunity. I like to do feature stories as well. They help develop your storytelling talents. However hard news is very interesting and I like to be cover the big news stories as they happen.

What kind of stories do you like to cover and why?

I prefer to cover stories that I think the audience will be interested in. I think that the political shifts and even small developments can be interesting because you can see where they can lead and where the implications are. But I also think that what the audience wants to know is 'How is this new political alliance or new economic strategy going to affect me?'

That is one of the things we need to remember. So we don't just speak to talking heads. We also speak to the people on the street. That is how people relate with the news. They can connect with the people that are being featured in the story.

What are the major changes that have taken place in broadcast journalism over the years?

There have been a huge number of technical advances. Earlier on, one had to travel with hundreds of kilos of equipment to do a live broadcast. Now you can work with equipment that fits into a small backpack.

After the development of Toko, which is a store and forward device, the process of broadcasting got faster. You had a two minute story which was played in an hour and a half. Then the process got faster. In 1999, when we covered the end of the Indian Airlines hijacking that was the first time we did a live broadcast using Toko. But really the use of technology got better after the events of 9/11. We started using the videophone which was a further improvement for live broadcasts.

Then we started using two satellite phones, which gives us a 128 kbp bandwidth. Now the use of the laptop computer for editing and sending live stories has allowed for a lot of data compression. This has helped us reduce costs. As a journalist I can stay on a story longer. All I have to do is plug the camera into the laptop and the laptop onto the broadband internet.

"The toughest moments are the decisions you have to take before the start of a conflict. The most stressful moments come when you have the opportunity to run away from a potential conflict but you choose to stay"

Are you satisfied with the safety measures that CNN has introduced for journalists covering wars?

Journalists are increasingly becoming targets for attack particularly in war zones. The word is spread by extremist groups that journalists are on one side or the other which is not true. Sometimes journalists are seen as the bad guys like what happened to Daniel Pearl.

Ten years ago this was never the case. When I joined CNN I did not have training for a dangerous situation. A few years ago however we hired a security company to train anybody who has to report during a time of war. Of course nobody is forced to do so. You need to learn what different weapons sound like and what they can do. Another thing I have learnt is that you can cover a volatile situation safely if you get the right information from the locals about the trouble areas.

Also you need to be alert at all times which means getting enough sleep. Sometimes if you have been working throughout the night doing reports then you need to put your hand up and state that you cannot go into a dangerous area in the morning. Sometimes you need to gauge the mood of a crowd in order to avoid trouble. In Iraq last year a missile destroyed a home killing 12 people. When we went there some people wanted to show us around while others pointed the finger at us. Eventually we judged it better to leave and return later.

So, you're constantly learning...?

Yes. You should never stop learning because the situation around you keeps changing. In Iraq journalists are becoming more of a target of late. Two of my colleagues were killed there this year when a gunman drove up behind their vehicle. Another friend of mine was shot dead in Saudi Arabia a couple of months ago. The lesson to be learnt is that you can never stop adapting to different environments.

You also need to remember that different situations require different vehicles for transport. `For Sarajevo', a series of news reports which I produced for Christiane Amanpour from 1992 - 1995. I remember visiting different carmakers in London. After Bosnia in 1998 we started conducting First Aid courses for people. Another experience was in Somalia in 1992. All the news organisations that went to Mogadishu had to hire bodyguards from the local tribes.

Could you talk about your experiences reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan?

I first went to Afghanistan when the Taliban took over in 1996. A lot of fascinating stories emerged from there. The fact that Osama Bin Laden was in a collision course with the West made me think that this is a country you need be familiar with and understand as a journalist.

Probably the toughest experience was on 9/11. The handful of journalists in Kabul left. However my cameraman and I decided to stay. When you have somebody deciding to stay because you are telling them to do so as you feel that you can report safely that responsibility weighs heavily upon you.

Again just before the war in Iraq last year, me and three of my colleagues had to decide whether we should stay. The toughest moments are the decisions you have to take before the start of a conflict. The most stressful moments come when you have the opportunity to run away from a potential conflict but you choose to stay.

In Iraq, I was embedded in the US military for two weeks. While embedded journalism has come in for criticism the experience really helped me understand what the troops were doing and how they were going about their job. I was able to get close to them and get a fiirst hand interaction with the locals.

How are you able to face the challenge of being skeptical and not cynical while reporting? I would imagine that there is a very thin line between the two attributes.

It is easy to become cynical as time goes on. However, I am an optimist. I will always approach something with an open mind. Otherwise you will bring a bias to a story.

Could you give me examples where you were able to bring your own unique perspective to a story that was different from what the other channels were doing?

My view is that you should really listen to people. Never write a story in your head before you get there. When you have listened then get back to your story. It is crucial that you take all points of view into consideration. One man's freedom fighter can be another's terrorist. However because I am in the field all the time I don't see other peoples stories. Sometimes I don't even see CNN. I want the audience to imagine that they are in my shoes and to give them the best understanding.

When you file reports do you worry that what you say might anger the establishment like the Bush government?

No! My job is to tell people what is happening. Criticism from the establishment is not an issue. However I have been thrown out of three countries. We have a really good track record of reporting in a balanced and fair manner.

"It is crucial that you take all points of view into consideration. One man's freedom fighter can be another's terrorist"

Working on the field means long and odd hours. How are you able to cope with the pressure?

I have a lovely wife and two daughters. When I walk into my home I am dad not Nic Robertson, the reporter. That is really liberating. It takes me away from the stressful environment that I work in. I think that my competitive nature has helped me succeed. I used to race as a cyclist. My grandfather once said that if a job is worth doing then it is worth doing well. I really believe that.

Could you talk about the influence that the internet is playing on the changing nature of journalism?

Great question! I really think about that a lot. The internet gives people a chance to connect immediately. The net provides a new window for journalists. I see broadcasters paying greater attention to what is being said on the blogs. If you look at CBS' 60 Minutes with Dan Rather with the letters that they used to do a story about President Bush. There were claims that the letters were forgeries. It came on the net soon.

Increasingly the audience is going to shift between television and the net, as video streaming through the net along with video on demand becomes a feasible option. This will give viewers the chance to build the news the way they want to see it, instead of waiting for a particular story to come along. Viewers will be able to see multiple video streams of any world event. Also advertisers will be able to interact with audiences using the two way process of the net. The advertiser can learn much more about the audience through a couple of queries in a questionnaire. On television it is just one way.

This year one of the major India news storties involved a woman Gudiya choosing between two men. Indian news channels did their best to be the first on the scene. As a result cagey reporters were banging on a member of the family's door at 3 am and dragging them out of their beds. In your view did their behaviour cross the ethics line?

I don't know the story you are referring to. However, we have a standards and practices department. We have an ethics guide. Harassing people is something that we have clear guidance on. We call and talk to managers. You cannot change your line due to the ratings. Whatever the pressures are to cross ethics due to competition you don't do it. We have built up a trusted brand with viewers and crossing the ethics line would mean betraying that trust.

During the bomb blasts in Mumbai last year some Indian channels because of the competition tried to outdo one another. This resulted in cases where correspondents exaggerated the situation by saying that there had been more incidents than what had happened. How is CNN able to avoid this problem?

We never exaggerate. We have a huge responsibility as journalists particularly on sensitive issues. We have to be very careful in our reporting. There is a growing realisation among the news media that these organisations see the media as a means for getting out their story. We need to recognise that.

We don't show people's heads being cut off. If there is content that is new then we will broadcast that. However, it is important to put an issue in the right editorial context. We need to understand that some groups kidnap or bomb to get media attention. The sophistication involved by groups who want to use the news media for propaganda is growing. They understand better how we as organisations work.

What are the rewards for you from working in this field?

I have a very interesting life. My natural curiosity is fulfilled in that I am able to go to different places and see how events are unfolding. Most people get their kids ready for school go to work, come home and look after their kids. If they are fortunate they get to spend 15-20 minutes of quality time with their spouses. They don't have the luxury to follow their interests, as much as they would like to. I am lucky in that I am able to follow world events, which interest me. But this comes with a huge responsibility of telling a story accurately with context and insight.

Finally any words of advice to journalists starting out?

They should follow their instincts. They need to work in the field that really makes them happy. They should also know that it is really competitive and you have to work really hard to succeed. Set your dreams high but expect to work hard to get there. Learn from others by talking to experienced people. Never stop trying to improve yourself.

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