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Frontlines and Datelines

July 10, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: A deserted road on the West Bank? Or is it Afghanistan’s Shah-e-Kot Valley? Actually, it’s Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and this hostage taking is a simulation. The exercise is part of a rigorous, week-long boot camp for journalists who are shipping out for hazardous duty abroad.

The training is a reflection of some new realities in the wake of September 11. News organizations are covering more international news with more correspondents– a 100 percent increase on the network evening newscasts, for example, in the past few months as compared to the period before September 11. And 21 percent of Americans surveyed recently said they are following overseas developments very closely, compared to 14 percent two years ago; that’s a 50 percent jump, due in large part to the terrorist attacks.

SPOKESPERSON: Fifty-one names. Fifty-one lives.

TERENCE SMITH: But gathering that international news is now more dangerous than ever.

FREEDOM FORUM ANNOUNCER: In Afghanistan, Pierre Billaud. Harry Burton.

TERENCE SMITH: Fifty-one journalists died covering the news in 2001. Their names were added to the Freedom Forum’s Journalist Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, on World Press Freedom Day in May. That’s nearly twice the number of deaths in 2000, and the most in any year since 1995.

CORRESPONDENT: Olaf Stromberg.

TERENCE SMITH: Boot camp participant Frank Smyth knows the dangers firsthand. Shortly after the Persian Gulf War, Smyth, two colleagues, and their Kurdish guide were captured by the Iraqi army during a Kurdish guerrilla uprising. The guide and one colleague were executed on the spot. Smyth, then a freelance radio and print reporter, and a photographer were imprisoned by the Iraqis for 18 days.

FRANK SMYTH: I was blindfolded during a number of interrogations, so having a hood over my head brought back that same feeling. And I had to sort of keep myself mentally from going back and sort of having a flashback and reliving that experience.

TERENCE SMITH: Smyth says the dangers of covering current conflicts, like those faced by this camera crew in the west bank, are becoming more common. He now works for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has documented the killings of 547 news people worldwide in the last decade. Most were targeted precisely because they were journalists.

FRANK SMYTH; What’s changed is that now western journalists, in particular American journalists, are becoming more of a target, and that creates a much more dangerous situation for people that are covering anything having to do with events since 9/11.

TERENCE SMITH: In this exercise run by Centurion Risk Assessment Services, the journalists are put through their paces by former British Royal Marines. The British company has trained some 8,000 news people over the last seven years in England and here, on the grounds of a military academy in the Virginia countryside.

The recent brutal murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is fresh in the minds of these journalists as they train. But they say they are trying to strike a balance between covering the story and becoming the story.

Kim Barker of the Chicago Tribune reported from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Sri Lanka for three months this spring.

KIM BARKER: I believe in safety before story. I don’t believe any story is worth getting killed over. But I also know that it’s what I want to do with my life, and it doesn’t change what I want to do with my life.

TERENCE SMITH: So at the boot camp, the reporters learn about the destructive power of assault weapons.

TRAINER: And basically I just need to push it down another quarter of an inch, all right, and it will go into single shot.

TERENCE SMITH: And what not to say at a hostile checkpoint.

TRAINER: Go over there to the commander. Have you been giving bribes?

CORRESPONDENT: Oh, no, I wasn’t trying to give a bribe.

TERENCE SMITH: Like Kim Barker, Farnaz Fassihi has been in the business for ten years. After 9/11, she was named an international correspondent for the Newark, New Jersey, Star- Ledger. She has reported from Afghanistan and was preparing for an assignment in the Middle East.

KIM BARKER: I think instinct has a lot to do with it, but sometimes you get carried away by the excitement and thrill and trying to get the story. I was lying there on the grass thinking, you know, this could be very real.

TERENCE SMITH: As the Africa correspondent for Newsday, a Long Island, New York, daily, Samson Mulugeta has had some close calls already.

SAMSON MULUGETA: As they say, ignorance is bliss. So when you first go to these places, you really have no clue what you’re getting yourself into. But in some ways, what this course does to you is opens your eyes to the real risk that accompanies it.

TERENCE SMITH: Centurion’s chief instructor, John Seward, says the deaths of Daniel Pearl, eight journalists in Afghanistan, and one recently in the Middle East are serving as a wakeup call.

JOHN SEWARD: I think what that realistically did was highlight the importance of doing a lot of background work before you go anywhere. And what we’re here overridingly to do is say, “well, look guys, if you decide to go down that road, what little telltale signs that are out there actually telling you it might not be safe to pursue this any further?”

TERENCE SMITH: He says the firm is now being asked to train journalists in the field, from Israel to Indonesia. And even with this intensive training, reporters still encounter danger. Two graduates of this program have lost their lives in conflicts, including one last November in Afghanistan. News executives say that beyond training, common sense measures can make a difference.

CBS News senior vice president Marcy McGinnis:

MARCY McGINNIS: What we do is send the most experienced people in the field, the people that are used to covering wars– the people that know how to act, they know where to go almost instinctively– we send them with the greener people. So we never send somebody who’s never been to a war zone with somebody who’s never been to a war zone.

TERENCE SMITH: As a result of both increased public desire for news about war zones and conflicts, and the journalistic imperative to provide it, the American media have sharply increased their foreign news budgets since September 11.

BOB WRIGHT: We’re running a million dollars a day for the first… for the first three, four weeks, about a million dollars a day.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Wright is the chairman and CEO of NBC.

BOB WRIGHT: We’re all writing checks like mad here. And I’m not sure you can maintain that level. And if anything happens here, as it has, it spikes you right up. So it’s been a difficult period on a cost basis.

TERENCE SMITH: Despite the increased coverage, polls show that foreign news still seems just that to many Americans– foreign.

ANDREW KOHUT: When we ask people why they don’t follow international news stories more closely, two-thirds say it’s because they don’t have the background.

TERENCE SMITH: A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Americans who say they track foreign news closely tend to come from a narrow segment of the public: affluent college graduates and older people. And beyond news related to terrorism or the Middle East, most people’s level of interest in international events is not markedly different than it was in the spring of 2000.

Pollster Andrew Kohut:

ANDREW KOHUT: But the public is struggling. People who don’t have background in international affairs, particularly people who haven’t attended college, have a lot of trouble with international news, and that’s what they tell us.

TERENCE SMITH: Representatives of news organizations say they are redoubling their efforts to bridge that gap and bring global news home. Marcy McGinnis:

MARCY McGINNIS; I think their interests in what’s going on in both Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East, that whole area, I think it’s grown. I think Americans do seem to be more interested in it. It doesn’t mean, though, that it’s the only thing they’re interested in.

TERENCE SMITH: At this recent forum put on by the Pew International Journalism Program, the editor of a prize-winning regional paper, the San Antonio Express News, Robert Rivard, said for his readership, one with a strong military background, world affairs do have a resonance.

ROBERT RIVARD: People in a city like San Antonio that’s two hours from the Mexico border are calling on you to open a Middle East bureau. That’s an amazing phenomenon, and it means that there is a passion not only for that foreign news, but there’s an expectation that the only people that can deliver it to them in a reliable and balanced and well packaged way is the newspaper.

TERENCE SMITH: September 11 caught many news organizations, especially television networks, short-staffed overseas. They had closed many of their foreign bureaus in the decade since the end of the cold war. But Marcy McGinnis of CBS thinks the network will have a presence in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan for the foreseeable future.

MARCY MC GINNIS: I don’t think this is the kind of story where you go in and leave right away. I think we’re in it for a long time, and therefore I have to make decisions on how we staff that. And I think that, you know, that’s what we’ve been doing since this story happened.

TERENCE SMITH: But studies show that the broadcast networks’ increased coverage of world news has been focused almost exclusively on the aftermath of September 11. Other important foreign stories, like the recent elections in France and the attempted coup in Venezuela have received only minimal coverage.

Nonetheless, some news organizations, like CNN, are bolstering their already strong commitment to international news for the longer term. The cable network, which has 43 bureaus, 31 of them overseas, recently established a new bureau in Dubai, and is seeking to open one in North Korea. It continues to be the only U.S.-based television organization with a full-time bureau in Cuba.

PBS is launching two new international affairs programs: “Frontline/World,” a magazine show of underreported international stories, and “Wide Angle,” a ten-week series focusing on stories from abroad.

CORRESPONDENT: Stories we can’t afford to ignore.

TERENCE SMITH: And the British Broadcasting Corporation is actively considering launching a new, 24-hour news channel in the U.S. that will showcase overseas news. Back at boot camp, these reporters say they have already seen the results of their overseas reporting.

CORRESPONDENT: It’s been amazing how many people I’ve talked to who are just lay people who know about what’s going on in the world. When I said I had been to Sri Lanka, knew where that was. I think that a year ago that wouldn’t have been the case.

TERENCE SMITH: As these journalists continue their training for battle zones, they believe their work will find an even wider audience in the future.