Journalism Graduate Reports on Hazards of Covering Iraq War

When Eric Owles earned his degree in 1998, online journalism was in its infancy. Times have changed.

<p>Eric Owles, '98 (CLAS), talks to journalism students about the importance of multimedia journalism. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli</p>
Eric Owles, '98 (CLAS), talks to journalism students about the importance of multimedia journalism. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli

When Eric Owles was finishing his degree at UConn in journalism and political science in 1998, online journalism was still in its infancy. CNN was almost alone in putting news content on a website. MSNBC did not exist. The New York Times did not yet have a website.

But an internship he did in 1996 with Politics USA, one of the pioneering original news websites, introduced him to the future world of his two passions, journalism and politics,  and his experience there would eventually lead to Owles helping The New York Times to break new ground in the 21st century.

Today as chief multimedia producer of The Times, Owles continues to work on the cutting edge of modern journalism by combining traditional reporting skills with new technology to tell stories from around the world. After helping to launch the online edition of The Times in 2002, he left in early 2008 for war-torn Iraq to begin the “Baghdad Bureau,” a blog that covered the daily life and challenges of the Iraqi people during war in words, pictures and video. He spent more than a year in Iraq before returning to the United States and soon will leave for a new assignment in Pakistan.

Last week Owles returned to Storrs to address students in the Department of Journalism’s Professional Seminar class, a course that provides students with the opportunity to hear and learn from professionals across the journalism spectrum.  The class is led by Marcel Dufresne, associate professor of journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and Science.

Expect the Unexpected

In describing his unexpected career path, which included working for Politics USA and its successor, PoliticsNow, Owles described the rapid evolution of online journalism, telling students: “If you’re graduating in two years it’s very possible the place that will employ you doesn’t even exist.”

In preparation for his visit to their class, students viewed examples of Owles’ work, including video reports of women running for elective office in Iraq, a multi-part series about the kidnapping of Times reporter David Rohde and an instructional package about  the tools of modern reporting written by Times reporter Stephen Farrell, who was kidnapped in Libya during the recent insurgence against Moammar Gadhafi.

Owles said that in his approach to reporting about events in Iraq, he wanted to provide a way for his audience to “invest” in the stories he would be producing.

“My goal here…was to use multimedia to tell these personal, emotional stories. My hope was to get people to invest themselves into Iraqis they would meet,” he said. “I went out on the street a lot and shot video interviews with Iraqis. I would ask readers to send in questions. I was trying to do things like that to get them to care about the other journalism we were producing and get them to invest a little bit. “

He primarily worked as a videographer, at times traveling embedded with U.S. military personnel while other times moving around the Iraqi capital with a translator, driver and security guard.

“I felt much more exposed and worried about my safety when I was walking through a market with U.S. soldiers than when I was walking through a market myself, because they don’t do anything small,” he told students. “You go in with big vehicles and lots of guns and you intimidate people. That’s a part of the reason you always see Iraqis saying wonderful things on your embeds because they’ll go up to people on the street and ask how do you feel about Americans? (They’ll say) ‘I love them, they are wonderful.’ You get great comments. If I go back later un-embedded, you might get a more honest answer.”

Owles described how while traveling on his own to report stories, he would try to appear as unassuming as possible, driving an old car and changing his appearance in a effort to blend in with people on the street. He would not use a camera bag for his video equipment, instead using a shopping bag he had purchased from a local merchant. In using these techniques, he was trying to emulate the practices of his friendJoao Silva, a veteran photographer who is considered the best combat photographer in the world.

“Whenever I’d go in with Joao, I’d just watch him operating in these dangerous places,” Owles said. “He’d go up, expose himself (to danger), get the shot he needed and then move away. He would work in a crowd and just keep his back to a certain wall, always looking for what would be a way out for this and learning to use fixers (local translators) as a set of eyes behind you because when you have a camera and are focused on that you’re missing everything that’s happening around you. It’s an easy way to get hurt.”

Dangerous Work

Silva was severely injured by a landmine last October in Afghanistan while covering a battle, suffering injuries to both of his legs.

“His injury hit home for me because I just felt like if he was the best at what he was doing and it happened to him, it’s just a reminder there’s just no way you can go out there and feel it’s not going to happen to me this time because I know I’m not as good at my job as he is,” Owles said. “So if it happened to him, it’s just a matter of luck at a certain point.”

Injury during combat is just one of the dangers of reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq today, he said. Several journalists have also been kidnapped by insurgents, adding another layer of safety concern while trying to work.

“I shot a lot of video just leaning out the car window,” Owles said. “You can only spend a certain amount of time in a neighborhood. You need to get the shot quickly and get out. I can’t go back to the same neighborhood two days in a row because if they see a white face there one day, the militia is going to be there the next and that’s a really good way to get kidnapped.”

Still, he noted, the environment in Iraq improved from the time he arrived there until he returned to the United States.

“It’s much, much better than it was at the height of the insurgency. There are still suicide bombings, casualties, kidnappings but nothing like the level of violence there was then,” said Owles. “By the time I left Iraq I was able to drive places around the country that was just off limits without a U.S. convoy before. I went places where I wouldn’t have gone without an 18-year-old American with an M-16 standing next to me.”

Near the end of the class, one student asked Owles if he had doubts about the dangers and commitment of covering events in Iraq.

“There were lot of times I was scared, usually the first time I was doing something; like the first time I went out on a suicide bombing,” he said. “But I never doubted the story was important or worth telling. I think all these stories are worth telling. There are very few reporters that were covering the attacks from the first invasion of Afghanistan to today. A lot of people I know have gotten out over the past couple of years. It’s not because they don‘t think the story is no longer worth telling, it’s just the toll it takes emotionally and on your relationships.  When you’re away, things happen while you’re over there. Life happens. Life goes on and you kind of miss it. That has caused more people to quit doing this than people being scared.”