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Why journalists go to war

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A soldier in fatigues runs with gun aimed out of frame. A man in a white t-shirt and jeans runs and points his camera at the soldier.
Khalid Mohammed
An Associated Press photographer in Baghdad in 2004.

War correspondents cover conflicts to tell the stories of people affected, to witness history or for the thrill. In return, they can sometimes find themselves in life-threatening situations.

To date, five journalists are known to have died covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Three journalists who covered other wars recounted what it is like to get their stories under adverse circumstances

Well before becoming a journalism professor at the University of Missouri - Kansas City, Peter Morello was a foreign correspondent for PBS. He was already stationed in Europe when he was asked to cover the war in Bosnia which he did, including the siege of Sarajevo.

“I didn't know at the time what I was getting into,” says Morello. “I was 28 years old, and so, I was high octane. I wanted to see history in the making, but I did not want to be shot at, which it turns out to be, I was shot at at least three times.”

Maggy Zanger was a freelance journalist who lived nearly six years reporting and teaching journalists in Afghanistan and Iraq. She trained local reporters to work as ‘fixers,’ guiding and translating for foreign correspondents. With the recent death in Ukraine of a Fox News fixer, along with a cameraman, Zanger emphasizes the vital work of these local experts.

“These are the people that make journalism happen overseas. It’s the local fixers and drivers and translators,” says Zanger.

During the invasion of Iraq, Peter Sleeth embedded in a military unit, where he followed American soldiers on sweeps of villages and raids.

"I loved it. I thought it was just the greatest thing I ever did and I never wanted to quit," says Sleeth even though filing stories from the desert was "hellish."

Still, Sleeth had some difficulty adjusting to life back in America.

“I was walking through a parking mall with my wife about five years ago,” Sleeth recalls, “and somebody hit a steel plate real fast driving over it, and I just dove to the ground. And I didn't even know why I was diving to the ground. Took me about three days to figure out, 'Oh, that's when we were attacking across this bridge.'”

While in conflict zones, these journalists worked to tell the stories of the people experiencing war.

When working in Bosnia, Peter Morello remembers thinking, “Perhaps through my reporting, it was my hope that I could shorten the war. That was my goal.”

  • Peter Sleeth, former reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner with The Oregonian and investigative reporter for ProPublica.
  • Maggy Zanger, professor, University of Arizona School of Journalism.
  • Peter Morello, professor of journalism, University of Missouri - Kansas City
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