Clarissa Ward is in New York from her base in London to talk to her U.S. colleagues about her recent six-day trip to Syria, which took six months to plan. The 36-year-old CNN war correspondent darts through the newsroom in high heels and full makeup to do quick on-air interviews. As soon as she’s off camera, Ward admits that she’s more comfortable in combat boots and a flak jacket.
Ward, who won a Peabody in 2012, is perhaps best known for her reporting on Syria for CBS, which she left last fall. While working at CBS, she snuck into the war-ravaged Middle Eastern country alone, posing as a tourist. With a small camera, she covertly shot her own video. At one point, she was taken blindfolded to meet members of the Free Syrian Army. Ward’s footage shows her interviewing a coterie of machine-gun-carrying military defectors whose faces are concealed by scarves.
Ward didn’t go alone on the most recent trip for CNN — she brought along a female producer, although she wouldn’t say how they got in. Both women worked with a freelance filmmaker on the ground.
Here, Ward talks about why it’s preferable to be a female reporter in the Middle East, how attacks on fellow journalists like Lara Logan have influenced the way she does her job, and how Vice has impacted broadcast journalism.
How many times have you been to Syria and what has changed there since your last trip?
This was, like, my 14th trip. The situation in Syria continues to get worse and worse. I was very frustrated with essentially looking at these grainy YouTube videos of what was happening on the ground and having to communicate through Skype interviews to try to get a better sense of how the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict was playing out on the ground. We knew that the bombardment was relentless, but we didn’t have stories from the inside because it was so dangerous for journalists to go there. I spent six months trying to figure out how I could go, and then I went. It was less than 24 hours before I saw an air strike on a fruit market, which brought home just how bad the situation really was. I think it’s a little bit better now since the cessation of hostilities started, and obviously encouraging that the Russians are withdrawing — or saying that they are going to withdraw.
Do you think they will withdraw?
I’m highly skeptical. I do think that they have a number of valid reasons for wanting to withdraw. This is a very expensive conflict and their economy is in the tank right now. Energy prices are really low. Sanctions are hitting them pretty hard. I also think that they learned some lessons from Afghanistan. They don’t want to get dragged into an endless war that they can’t necessarily win. At the same time, do I think this will be a complete withdrawal? No.
What are people on the ground saying?
It’s just an absolute deal-breaker that [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad has to go. There can be no peace, no agreement until it is understood that he steps down in some capacity. Part of the problem that you have as well is that the people representing the opposition in Geneva are not necessarily a reflection of the people on the ground. So you have this disconnect with the people who are fighting and dying on the ground and the people who are hammering out deals in five-star hotels in Geneva. What a shock.
How do your Syrian sources view the political climate in the U.S.?
They are definitely interested in it, insofar as it may have huge ramifications or impact for them in the future. But I think that their primary feeling with regard to America is bitterness. They feel that they’ve been left to die. That basically America handed over Syria to Russia and they said, “You guys work it out.” When you see courthouses, hospitals and schools being bombed with impunity, people look to America to right those wrongs. That has been traditionally, for better or worse, the role that America has played in the world. There’s disappointment and even active dislike for America — not the American people at all but the government. It’s just this idea that they have been abandoned.
Can ISIS be contained?
ISIS cannot be contained with only a military strategy. It’s the ideology that is spreading like wildfire. You have to find a better way to counter their narrative.
What made you get into this kind of reporting, and are you ever scared?
If you aren’t scared, then you’re stupid and probably shouldn’t be there. When planes are dropping bombs it’s good to be scared. It’s not good to panic but it’s good to be scared. I was initially driven to do this work because of 9/11, which happened my senior year at Yale. I just was really struggling to understand how something like this could happen and how there could be such a fundamental lack of communication in the world. I wanted to understand that region better. As time went on and I covered the conflicts in the region.…I realized how much people were suffering. I’m not naïve to say that I can change the world or anything like that. I think hubris is kind of a dangerous thing for a war correspondent. But I definitely do feel compelled on some level to at least bear witness to some of the suffering and tell people about it, tell people’s stories. Not that I feel like I can change anything, but it’s at least something small that I can do.
What are the positives of being a female war correspondent?
I firmly believe that, especially in Syria, female journalists are killing it. They’re crushing their male counterparts — the boys are doing OK, too. There is a coterie of unbelievably strong female journalists: Liz Sly from The Washington Post, Anne Barnard from The New York Times, Rania Abouzeid from The New Yorker, Jenan Moussa, Liz Palmer from CBS, Arwa Damon from CNN. I actually believe that it is helpful to be a woman covering this conflict because, first of all, I can put on a headscarf and pretend to be asleep in the back of a car and drive through a checkpoint. Nobody looks twice at me whereas my male, Western counterpart may have a tougher time getting through that checkpoint. Secondly, I have access to 50 percent of the population that my male counterparts don’t have access to, and when you sit with the women in these places, you get a very fresh perspective on this conflict. They are gold mines of information. They know everything that’s happening in the village. They are often more likely to be open emotionally and talk about the real impact of war and talk about trauma. Sometimes that can be harder for men to talk about, even though the men feel it in the same way. I feel very blessed to be a woman. It has helped me and has given me more access to the compassionate side of the story.
How about the negative side, with male sources refusing to speak to a female reporter?
It can be difficult occasionally. Some people won’t want to do an interview with a woman. You can definitely be the victim of sexism, absolutely, especially in the Middle East. For the most part, I think they are savvy enough to not try that with a Western woman. We enjoy this kind of weird honorary male status almost where I can sit in the kitchen with the women and I can sit in the front room with the men, unlike, perhaps, their own women. You’re like the third sex.
When you’re unarmed and surrounded by men with guns, how do you ask a tough question?
Before you ask the questions, you suss out whether there’s a chance they’re going to shoot you because if there is, you obviously want to frame them in a slightly more delicate way….In the Middle East, so many people have guns that you learn to look a little deeper at other criteria of whether they’re armed. If I think there’s a real threat to my life, I’m not going to interview the person unless it’s a really exceptional situation.
Give me an example of a tense moment.
For a “60 Minutes” piece, I confronted a jihadist leader with video of his men executing Syrian soldiers after he repeatedly told me that they hadn’t done that. That was scary because I was in his house. I didn’t know how he was going to react, but I gave it some thought and I realized he would be pretty stupid to kill me or try to capture me. If you’re really in a dangerous situation, you try to take note of the risks, have an exit plan, have people on the other end of the line wherever it may be in the U.S. or on the other side of the border aware of what you are doing and are part of the security plan to get you out of there as quickly as possible. There’s a lot of planning that can be done to protect you from something like that, but also the element of surprise sometimes helps. It’s like, “whoa, did she just show me a video of my guys committing war crimes?” Then 10 minutes later, he’s really angry and wants to do something about it, but I’ve already left.
What precautions can you take from being sexually assaulted and how did what happened to Lara Logan touch you?
My wardrobe is a sort of an endless topic of fascination for people watching my stories. “Why is she dressed like a crow?” For my security. Wherever possible, and obviously Syria is an extreme situation because it is so dangerous, I really prefer and feel better about doing my job if I am not the focus of everybody’s attention. In Syria, you will see me almost always wearing an abaya and a hijab. That’s primarily because I could be kidnapped if people knew that I was a Western journalist. But it’s also because nobody looks twice at me when I wear that, and there’s something extremely liberating about that. Even in other countries where it would be odd to dress like that — like Egypt — I will always dress very conservatively. I find it tiresome when you go to one of these protests and suddenly instead of being able to watch the protest and listen to what people are saying, they all form a circle around you and are looking at you. I can’t do my job then. I’m not the story. You’re the story. Get on with it and do your own thing.
I think what happened to Lara was hideous and just so unfortunate. It’s difficult to get your head around something like that. It’s obviously unbelievably scary and it could happen to any of us. You do what you can to mitigate the risk. If we’re getting some shots for a protest and I am not needed for those shots, then I will sort of hover on the edge in the back and not necessarily stride into the melee because, again, I want to get the best pictures and if I’m going to create a sideshow by wading into the middle of it, then I’m not going to do that. I’m not one of those correspondents who likes to cause a commotion and then is, like, ‘Oh my god, there’s a commotion.’ That’s not my style.
Vice positions itself as “60 Minutes” for the Millennial. You’re a Millennial, sort of…
Oh, bless you.
What are they doing well and what is lacking?
Vice is doing a lot of interesting and important work. I think they’ve tapped into the zeitgeist in a way that more traditional media is just starting to do. They realize that people want a more raw, authentic experience where they feel like they are along for the journey, as opposed to the more classic, “sound byte, sound byte, stand-up, sound byte, sound byte, close.” It feels a little more organic, a little less formulaic. I think there’s something we can all learn from that. I try to make my stand-ups feel more conversational. Viewers like to feel like they are traveling to places with you.
At the same time, there are certain things that make “60 Minutes,” “60 Minutes” and Vice, Vice. Editorially, I think “60 Minutes” is just more potent. I think some of these Vice stories are more journeys than they are real studies in policies, let’s say. In an ideal world, I would like to do work that can kind of marry the two, so it can be really potent important work on an editorial level that takes policy and really examines it, but it can also feel entertaining.
Vice and others call their video reports “documentaries.” There’s a difference between a documentary and a journalistic report. Is there a danger of an overlap, in a report being edited in a way so that it’s more entertaining?
That’s such a good question and actually I just read an article about the Netflix series “The Making of a Murderer.” This article was basically looking at, “OK, is this journalism really?” because there are a lot of facts that were omitted. What it went to highlight was the idea that, now moreso than ever, the world of entertainment and documentary and long format and news are all becoming intertwined. On the one hand, that is exciting because it means that there is a hunger suddenly with a wider audience to look at these kinds of stories. But I do think it comes with a responsibility in terms of the level of storytelling and the need to be editorially robust.
I can’t think of any examples that I’ve seen where I thought “this is egregious.” I think it brings something new to the table than the traditional two-and-a-half minute news piece might. It’s filling a different niche and a different role and I think everyone can learn from each other. For me, it’s exciting.
We did a big digital push for the Syria stories and we took a couple of clips and put them on Instagram. Everybody will tell you, “Nobody cares about Syria, nobody cares about overseas, nobody does it right, nobody cares.” Bullshit, it turns out. This one clip with the doctor had 90,000 views on Instagram and the clip before, which was of Donald Trump speaking, had something like 67,000. There is a hunger, not necessarily for a geopolitical kind of debrief on the Middle East, but there is absolutely a hunger for great storytelling that takes you to places you haven’t been that presents compelling characters who are going through life and death moments. Good storytelling is good storytelling.
Media companies are relying more on freelancers. How has that impacted war reporting?
We have a duty as journalists and as news organizations to do whatever we can to protect freelancers. It is very dangerous for them and often they are going into war zones with no insurance and no body armor and no language skills and no fixers, often to devastating end. At the same end, freelancers have a burden of responsibility to draw on the resources of maybe more experienced journalists…some of these, especially young freelancers, are bouncing into war zones. The Arab Spring really opened Pandora’s box. It was like, “I’m 22 and I have a camera, I’m ready to go to Libya.” That really is dangerous….I think most news organizations learned their lessons, very sadly, early on. The New York Times, for example, will not work with freelancers in Syria. There are no easy answers. Freelancers have been doing some of the best work and some of the bravest work.
[News organizations] are fighting the good fight here, but for much of this new media, they are relying on freelancers and stringers. It’s not the same as having a bureau right there with the infrastructure, with the support, with the body armor, the whole she-bang….[In Syria] I think The New York Times saw the writing on the wall before everybody else did. Very sadly, when Jim [Foley] was taken, when John Cantlie was taken, when Austin [Tice] was taken, when Steve Sotloff was taken, when Theo Padnos was taken, suddenly it was like, “Houston, we have a really serious problem here.” All of these journalists are getting kidnapped and the one thing they have in common is that they are freelancers.
Who are some of your mentors?
Bob Simon was a huge inspiration to me, probably one of the greatest writers for television who has ever lived. Marie Colvin was also a great inspiration to me…and Christiane [Amanpour] has long been an inspiration and support to me…but Bob was special. He was an amazing writer and he also had a sardonic wit. He was a little bit dark and I like people with dark humor. We used to laugh a lot.
Would you ever try a different kind of reporting?
I’m open to everything, but I don’t think you could put me in a suit and have me come into an office. No. It’s just not going to happen. I love what I do so much. Obviously, at some point if I have kids, there are going to be considerations that I’ll take into account in terms of what kind of work I can do, but I do think that you can do both. You just have to be smart about it and have a great partner and do a lot of planning and be sensible about the risks that you take. I hope to be a foreign correspondent for many years to come. That would be my dream.
What’s your release outside the war zone?
It’s really spectacular. People are like, “Skydiving!” I’m like, “I really like to take baths.” I’m really into taking baths and reading poetry and being outdoors and being with my friends and my family — most of whom don’t work in journalism — and watching Netflix and eating sushi, which is not something I ever get to do in the Middle East.
Where do you want to go next for a story?
It’s ironic that I’m known for the Middle East because I lived in Russia twice, I lived in China for two years. By no means do I feel constrained to the Middle East. It’s just that so much bad stuff seems to happen there.
I really want to do some stories in India. I definitely want to get back to Russia, although I’m not sure how much they like me right now. [She laughs, referring to her past reports on the Ukraine conflict.] Um, yeah.
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