Deborah Amos has been reporting from war zones and sharing the stories of those affected by conflict since 1982. An international correspondent for NPR, she recently returned from covering the impact of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the refugee situation on Turkey’s border with Syria. Before speaking about ISIS on a panel discussion hosted by Harvard Law School’s Islamic Legal Studies Program, the 1992 Nieman Fellow sat down with Nieman Reports to discuss her experiences as a foreign correspondent. Edited excerpts from their conversation:
You just got back from a three-week trip covering ISIS on the Turkish border with Syria. How did that trip come about, and what was one of the biggest stories to come out of it?
This was the oddest trip that I’ve ever made. I was not supposed to be there. I had a visa to Tehran. But I landed in Tehran and they said, “Oh, excuse me, Ms. Amos, but your visa’s already expired.” The U.S. had put the wrong date in my passport. I was in Tehran for an hour and 15 minutes before I was deported.
I was in Istanbul and they kept saying, “Oh, we’ll fix it.” But they couldn’t fix it, and so I was in hustle mode. Every journalist recognizes it—when you’re terrified because you think you’ve just screwed up and you better come up with something very good. The first thing I said was, “I’ll do a story about ISIS and oil.” There happened to be an oil conference in Istanbul at that moment. All these people showed up who actually knew about it. This was before anybody had really done a lot of work on it.
I knew that they [ISIS] were exporting oil. What I didn’t understand, until I ran into these oil experts at this conference, was the reason that they went into Mosul. They never expected to take Mosul. Nobody counted on the Iraqi Army collapsing. They were there for the oil. That’s what they were doing. Yes, they took Mosul. But when they came out and went south, they went straight for four particular places where you can pump oil. They went for the refinery in Baiji. They didn’t just go there, they brought trucks there. They are serious oil smugglers. They arrive at the Ajeel field, which is one of the biggest, and they have six weeks of just extracting, extracting, extracting. One of the experts at this conference was from the Iraqi Oil Report. He said, “In those six weeks, they made $60 million.”
These guys are unbelievably clever. That replenished their coffers. They didn’t count on getting almost a billion dollars worth of U.S. military equipment, which is what they got in Mosul. The stories that they knocked over the bank, apparently, are not true. But they made such a good profit in the oil business. The Iraqi army bombed Ajeel field on August 30 and shut it all down. But they just made an incredibly handsome profit.
How do you negotiate the logistics of reporting in a place like that?
This trip for me, it was like I was a new reporter. I had never been there before. I hadn’t planned it. I hadn’t set it all up. I didn’t have a translator. I had no idea what I was going to do. I was just looking for stories. The first night I flew to Urfa, and we just started looking for people who lived in Raqqa, which is where ISIS is in control, and interviewing them.
It’s a time-honored tradition of how you do foreign corresponding. A hundred years ago, people used to go down to the docks in New York and they interviewed people when they got off the boat. Now, what we do is we stand at the border and we interview people who are coming across, because we can’t go in because it’s too dangerous. Each one of these stories was about “Who can I find, and can I interview them?” I lucked into a great Iraqi translator who found me a defector, found me a smuggler. We worked together on trying to shape this ISIS story.
The reason I didn’t have a translator at first is because every translator I’ve ever worked with now has a job with NGOs, because the expansion of international aid going into Syria has grown exponentially. They want the same people we want—English-speaking, smart, college-educated Syrians. We used to hire those translators, and now they all work for NGOs. Good for them, and I’m happy they all have paying, full-time jobs, because it was never a great living to work with any of us. There are some people who still do it, but you’re always scratching around now for translators.
So many news organizations are closing foreign bureaus or cutting back foreign coverage. Why is it that NPR has maintained that commitment to international reporting?
All of the polling that NPR does obsessively, like everybody else does, shows that one of the big reasons that listeners tune into NPR is for its international coverage. That space is getting smaller and smaller and smaller, and everybody knows that. There’s a commitment for a reason. If you want to keep your audience, you keep doing international news. We just got another million-dollar grant that goes into doing this coverage.
The thing that I know, because I see it in my own coverage, is how expensive it is. I see why organizations see it as a luxury. The wires still have to do it, and for newspapers they can get Reuters or The Associated Press. If you’ve noticed, both organization have really beefed up what they’re doing—the way that they hire, the way that they deploy. They’re doing very, very good coverage. My guess is that when you look at Google for a particular story, you will see Reuters, Reuters, Reuters, AP, AP, AP, Xinhua, Xinhua, Xinhua, CNN. That’s what’s happening, that the number of organizations that are covering foreign news is really growing smaller, which is why we’ve had the growth of freelancers.
But then you have freelancers like James Foley or Steven Sotloff, who were in dangerous areas without institutional backing and were kidnapped and killed by ISIS. What can be done to protect them when they’re abroad?
A year ago, that was a big issue because there were tons of freelancers. They were running all over Syria. They didn’t have an editor in Washington or New York or Los Angeles saying, “I don’t think so, I think that’s a really bad idea,” like mine do. Or, “call me before you go, call me when you get to the border, call me when you’re on the other side.” They really pay attention. We’ve got a security adviser. Sometimes, they come with us. Freelancers don’t have that. They take risks that they probably shouldn’t be taking. Also, they’re young. A lot of them have never been in a war zone before. The one in Syria was particularly dangerous, the most dangerous one I have ever been in. I’ve been a war correspondent since 1982, I’ve seen lots of dangerous places. But this is as dangerous a place as I have ever seen.
It was a problem. A lot of companies had these debates about moral hazard. I just heard John Daniszewski from AP say, “We won’t send a freelancer in a place we won’t send a staffer.” It’s just not right. It’s not morally defensible.
We all saw this when Austin Tice was kidnapped. There was this three or four day period where all the institutions he worked for said, “He’s not ours.” We [foreign correspondents] all said, “If this persists, we will all raise holy hell, because you all were happy to take his copy.” To their credit, they all then stepped up to the plate and did everything they possibly could to see if they could get him out. But there was this little lag time.
With a story like Syria that’s gone on for so long and seems to have no end in sight, how do you deal with compassion fatigue in your audience in terms of keeping a story fresh?
Oh man! But it’s not me, you see. It’s the editors. I know when Syria’s hot and when it’s not. There was about a six-month period where I knew better than to suggest I would go to southern Turkey. They just weren’t interested. “Another refugee story on Syria? No.”
It was really interesting this time. I got on the plane, I went to southern Turkey, and all of a sudden, they couldn’t get enough. We were hot again, and when that happens, you just file like crazy because you don’t know when the door’s going to close. But there were American strikes, and all of a sudden we were involved, and Americans got interested again. Could I pitch a big refugee story? Probably not. I know where the limits are of what people really are interested in now, and it’s not that. You have to really, really pace your coverage. You have to find a new angle every time. It can’t be that tired, old, “Oh, how sad it is.” You really have to struggle to find something, and every once in a while you do.
The other people who are in on this with us are the NGOs. They know what a good story is and what will “sell” to the audience. You get a call that says, “Guess what? We have the first Girl Scout troop in Zaatari camp in Jordan. Can you come? We won’t tell anybody else,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll be there,” because you know that that is enticing, appealing. It’ll get some resonance with the audience.
Then, you can go on to do a whole story about, “This community understands that it’s not going home so it’s building roots here.” That’s what that story’s about, Girl Scouts in Zaatari. Then the back end of the story is, “Hey, they’ve got a new Safeway [supermarket] in Zaatari camp,” and that’s another sign that they’re not going home. This thing’s going to go on for a long time, and there are some very troubling implications for all of that. But I could build a story on Girl Scouts, and Safeway, and the soccer team that the Jordanians are training from Syrian women, but if I hadn’t have gotten the Girl Scout tip from Mercy Corps, who’s doing it, then I couldn’t have sold it to my editors, because they always say, “Not refugees again.” You really have to work at that.