War correspondent discusses technology, trust in journalism

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Digital record keeping offers journalists a means of countering attempted government fabrications of events in nations with restricted presses, C.J. Chivers, foreign correspondent for the New York Times, told an audience at Brown/RISD Hillel last night.

Before the lecture began, audience members received copies of a photograph of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili pushed to the ground, surrounded by men in plainclothes and guards in black flack jackets carrying assault rifles. Chivers, who served as an infantry officer in the Persian Gulf War, chronicled the August 2008 journey of that image’s photographer into Georgia in the days after Russian-Georgian hostilities broke out.

The success of the photograph as an “enduring document” of the conflict, Chivers said, depends only upon the photographer’s skill in that moment of crisis. Good journalism in war-torn nations is still “just journalism, just the basics,” Chivers said, adding that reporting comes down to asking a “series of very basic questions.”

A former Moscow bureau chief for the Times and reporter for the Providence Journal who has covered wars in Georgia and Afghanistan, Chivers compared his foreign assignments to his earlier local work with the Journal, saying that both depended on talking to well-connected sources and asking them what did and did not happen.

Holding up a compact digital camera, he called digital recording devices “the most important tool” available to journalists. Recording devices, Chivers said, had taught him “to listen more and talk less.” Keeping an extensive audio-visual record on a camera or phone allows a reporter to leave a country with an extensive body of facts with which to write a story, Chivers said.

Chivers wrote a story on marine doctors in northeastern Afghanistan operating on a shrapnel-wounded man almost completely from his digital record, which allowed him to remain quiet during the hour-long operation, he said.

“When you finally get into a good place,” Chivers said, “just listen.”

The tight hold that foreign governments have over the free exercise of press “is frustrating,” he said. Journalists are often obligated to print the official government reply, Chivers said, even when these are blatant distortions of facts – which he called a “tyranny of symmetry.” Chivers was present one afternoon when a tank fired at a terrorist-occupied school in southern Russia in 2004, and he heard the shots. But the Russian government, he said, claimed the tank did not fire until evening.

The best defense against these coverups is “more evidence,” Chivers said, and mentioned again his frequent on-the-job use of a digital camera and cell phone memory card – to “vacuum up video” – as a “means to represent evidence to the government.”

Gaining the trust of informants in nations with a restricted press is not a problem, Chivers said.

Chivers reported on Umar Israilov, who detailed instances of torture by prominent political figures in Chechnya, and explained that Israilov had “no place to go with this story in Russia. … (It) wouldn’t be published, wouldn’t go on the air.”

Chivers said he spent extensive time ensuring that his published articles offered no avenue for governments to uncover the identity of his informants.

The crossover between a journalist’s work and personal life is huge, Chivers said, citing his ground coverage of the September 11 attacks in New York City. Chivers said he took cover in scaffolding nearby the World Trade Center Towers as debris from the airliners’ collisions fell 80 stories into the street. For over a year, the sound of trains reminded him of the collapsing towers, he said.

Recreating events at the occupied school in Russia in 2004, however, was a “fascinating intellectual struggle” that often involved a mechanistic distance from the emotionally trying forensic details, Chivers said. He kept returning to the school where 1,100 hostages were taken, he said, and compared pictures of the damage with interviews with survivors to determine whether Russia had attacked the school.

Chivers, whose articles often include detailed personal descriptions, told The Herald after the event that journalism should never be “inventive,” but that long-form articles allow journalists to write deeper, more descriptive paragraphs.

Technological changes in journalism will not effect the public desire for news in the future, Chivers said in response to an audience question. But the big question is whether print newspapers’ current business model can survive, he said.

Chivers does not engage in “prescriptive” journalism which attempts to steer the opinions of readers, he said, telling The Herald that his job was to cover, not influence, the news.

Chivers graduated from Cornell in 1987 and was valedictorian at the Journalism School at Columbia in 1995.

While reporting for the Journal, Chivers received a Livingston Award for his coverage of collapsing Atlantic fisheries.

The lecture was presented by the Department of English Nonfiction Writing Program and sponsored by the Shane Family Program Fund.