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Indiana University Journalism

BBC’s Doucet talks to students about war correspondence

Holly Hays | March 19, 2013
Photo by Kerchanin Allen
The BBC's Lyse Doucet met with students at St. Bride's while they were in London during spring break.
The last time BBC reporter Lyse Doucet was in Syria, she came face-to-face with the reality of a brutal war. Over a hundred people dead, charred bodies surrounded by shell casings filled the room, divided by trails of blood smears where the bodies had to be dragged through the dust on the floor.

These were the bodies of civilians who had been targeted by Syrian forces.

Doucet, an international correspondent for the BBC, shared stories of her 30-year career with students in associate professor Owen Johnson’s J418 From London to Paris: In the Footsteps of Ernie Pyle class.

She met with students in the crypts at St. Bride’s Cathedral in London, where students spent a few days during spring breaks as they literally followed World War II correspondent Pyle’s path from London to Paris to Normandy.

Johnson leads the trip each year, which is the centerpiece of a semester-long look at Pyle’s writing and war correspondence. Pyle himself was victim to the dangers of war reporting. He was killed on Ie Shima in 1945 while reporting for Scripps-Howard newspapers.

In her long career, Doucet has traveled many times to countries in tumult. Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia — each gave her a glimpse into civilian life during times of war, including the first Afghan vote in 2004, a day in which she said that both Afghans and journalists were crying in awe of what was happening around them.

Doucet said the growing difficulties for foreign correspondents, including drone strikes and constant attention from government officials.

“Never has there been a time in our lives when the reporting has been so rough and the history has been so historic,” Doucet said. “The risks are great, but equally, the stories need telling.”

She recalled witnessing the massacre in Syria, a country which for years had experienced tense revolution and whose people had been living in constant fear of the government. She recalled another time in which she approached a group of civilians outside a mosque in Barzeh, Syria. A man approached her crew and pressed a piece of paper into the hand of her producer that explained that no one could talk because the army was waiting on the next street.

Six months later, the army was gone, and the civilians were sharing their horror stories, showing her bullet-riddled buildings and illustrating their strife.

“A people had lost their fear,” Doucet said.

However, when she returned a year after her encounter at the mosque, the troops were back and journalists were not allowed back in. Doucet herself was experiencing pressure from the Syrian government to censor her stories. Other than funeral announcements, the fear had returned, she said, and that no one was willing to share their experiences.

All except a young boy.

As she approached the boy and his mother, she asked them to share their thoughts on the army’s presence. The mother turned away and refused to speak, but her son tugged on her hand and pleaded with her to talk.

“‘Tell her what’s happening,’” Doucet recalled the boy saying. “‘We’re begging them to stop.’”

Doucet was not alone in her experiences with the Syrian government, though some journalists experienced more dangerous encounters than others. She recalled the death of her friend Marie Colvin, a fellow journalist who had crossed the Syrian border with the aid of rebels and had reported from Homs before her building was hit by a targeted drone strike in early 2012.

“Journalists should always live by the maxim that no story is worth dying for,” Doucet said. “The agonizing question is: When are the risks too great?”

Doucet stressed the importance of being safe while reporting from potentially dangerous situations. She said journalists need to know their limits and stop reporting a story when they feel that the social and political climates have become too tumultuous.

Above all, she said, retaining the ability to write a good story in these situations is key.

“Be bold, be brave, and be brilliant, but be safe,” she said.

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