War reporting: advice for interviewing refugees

Refugees are scared, upset, mad at the other side — they’ll tell stories that happened to “a friend of a friend” as if they happened to them. Then the news media picks it up, and more refugees hear them, and tell the same stories.

Then you go to the other side to find the destroyed village etc… to find out that it’s still there and, in fact, people still live there.

That’s not to say that atrocities don’t happen — they do. And we, as journalists, have an obligation to make sure that stories of human rights abuses get out, so that the world community can act to stop it from happening. This is a hard job, but straightforward.

What’s less straightforward is to learn to judge whether a particular story merits coverage or not. I myself have been caught up in hysteria more than once and my editors were often able to catch me before I got into trouble. But when you’re far from home, editors are more likely to trust your judgment, and, I’m sorry to say, I’ve put overblown stories into print.

Many local journalists I met while reporting often bought into the atrocity stories — in fact, some even came right out and said that their job was to support the war effort, even if it meant fudging the truth a little bit. “Even if this particular atrocity isn’t true, others are, because we know what those people are like.” And any criticism of the war effort was seen as a deep affront to the people who had died fighting it — including their colleagues in the news media.

I can understand that. It was hard to me to maintain my objectivity about Chechnya when a Chechen death squad killed a good friend of mine, a journalist. (This was before the war with Russia broke out.) But that doesn’t mean that I would then run every horror story I heard of that involved Chechens.

So what do you do? You go back to the basics. You get as many facts as you can — who, what, where, when, how. You can often tell that someone is making a story up by the fact that they get really shifty or upset when you ask for details. In particular, you ask for facts that you can confirm. Names of other witnesses, officials, dates, locations.

As a foreign journalist you’re often in a position where you’re able to go to the other side of the conflict to check things out, whereas local reporters might not be able to. You can check to see whether that particular village really was destroyed, or if it’s still there and people are living there. You can check for signs of shelling, or bullet holes. You can talk to local international observers and medical personnel. If you don’t have medical training, for example, you might have trouble telling a birth defect from a shrapnel wound or from deliberate torture. So be wary of accepting stories at face value (especially when someone asks for money as well) and do some digging before putting uncorroborated victims’ accounts into print.