Five Things Mort Rosenblum Knows About the Challenges of Conflict Reporting

If there’s anything that Mort Rosenblum understands, it’s the kind of reporting that pushes past everyday media noise and makes an impact. As a foreign correspondent, Rosenblum broke the story of Argentina’s “dirty war” during the 1970s, wrote history-making stories about famine in African nations in 1984 and managed AP bureaus from Kinshasa to Paris. He’s still reporting, doing the Mort Report, along with magazine assignments, and inspiring a new generation of hopeful reporters at the University of Arizona, where he’s teaching and preparing them for the challenges of journalism today.

What kind of challenges?

The rise of the stringer. “Foreign correspondents are an endangered species. During World War II, there were more than 2,500 foreign correspondents serving American media companies. Today, that number is a small fraction of what it once was. A great deal of the news we get from war zones comes from freelancers — ‘independents, if not stringers’ — who are underpaid and under-supported. This new normal is the opposite of investing in conflict journalism.”   

The disappearing context. “As a reporter, I try to sit back and sketch the larger context that reveals the complexities of a conflict story. This is what I call the backdrop. And way too often, the backdrop is boiled down into a news crawl that you see at the bottom of a TV screen: into a hundred words or less. Honestly, can you think of anything that matters to the future of the world that can be told in 150 words?”

The objectivity trap. “I’ve lost count of the number of times when an editor has looked at a story I’ve written and said, ‘Well, what’s the other side?’ The trouble here is that you can always find another side. But if you have to turn over too many stones hunting for that alternate perspective, then you’re not achieving objectivity — you’re creating an imbalanced narrative.”

The free range. “Back in the Gulf War, the Pentagon had a name for independent journalists who didn’t embed with military outfits: they were called “unilaterals.” They undertake the hardest, most dangerous conflict reporting. And it’s also the most important. These are journalists doing what they should be able to do in any story: finding action as it happens, staying long enough to talk with people, and returning to headquarters to demand answers to what they know to be the crucial questions.”

The truth. “One of the great challenges we face as storytellers is assessing truth without knowing how our audience may perceive reality. In America, millions of people have created their own truth and they filter everything through that invention. And when it comes to war, this lens of augmented reality can alter perceptions of what’s possible — including peace.”

We’re excited to welcome Mort Rosenblum as a moderator at the War Stories. Peace Stories. symposium. He’ll be joined by New York Times Pentagon correspondent Helene Cooper, Anna Therese Day (founder of Frontline Freelance Register, whose Middle East reporting has been featured on CNN, Al Jazeera English, and VICE), Mike Jobbins, a senior director at Search for Common Ground—the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding organization, Scott Stearns (Voice of America’s State Department correspondent and former Dakar Bureau Chief, White House correspondent, and Nairobi Bureau Chief) and Heba Aly, Director of IRIN News, which has been at the forefront of reporting on humanitarian crises including the Ukrainian civil war and the ongoing Rohingya genocide.

PHOTO: Harun Najafizada, BBC Reporters, Afghanistan