The Daily Northwestern

Reporter speaks about his toughest stories

Libby Nelson

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A year ago, CBS correspondent Barry Petersen, Medill BSJ ’70, MSJ ’72, was wearing a flak jacket while interviewing people in the streets of Baghdad.

It was just the latest stop in his career as a foreign correspondent, on a world tour that has taken him to the sites of many of the last 25 years’ wars and disasters: Thailand in the first days after the 2004 tsunami. Rwanda during its 1994 civil war. China during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Somalia. Bosnia. Moscow.

Petersen shared his role in the stories he covered Sunday with about 50 Communications Residential College students in a 90-minute speech in Fisk Hall. He had also spoken at Alumni Reunion Weekend events at Hotel Orrington on Friday.

Throughout his presentation, he showed footage of his broadcasts, beginning with his experiences in Iraq last year and continuing to the tsunami and the Rwandan genocide.

The first tape, footage from Iraq, detailed how Petersen reported there despite strict security measures. The instability in Baghdad kept his crew largely confined to their office in the hotel, so they sent Iraqi camera crews to situations too dangerous for Americans, he said. They traveled in a convoy of two armored cars and lived and worked from a studio on the roof of a Baghdad hotel.

“You end up feeling like you’re trying to understand a story that you can’t see,” Petersen said. “You got used to a level of violence. – We’d hear explosions go off and think, ‘Oh, it’s not a big one,’ but you know that somewhere in the city something horrible may have happened.”

Later in 2004, Petersen was one of the first correspondents to reach Thailand after the Dec. 26 tsunami, before the scope of the disaster was clear and as the world was finding out what had happened.

“This was not about devastated buildings but devastated lives,” he said. “When you saw the immensity of death, the number of bodies that were there, I thought, ‘I owe it to this story to be the best that I can be. – No compromises, no cliches.'”

As he showed a tape, Petersen said he’d done what he normally tries to avoid: “I journalism,” or telling what he thought about the story.

“I would like to say I was tough and hard like journalists are supposed to be,” Petersen said in his broadcast, reporting from a Buddhist temple filled with bodies. “But I will tell the truth. I stood there and I cried.”

It wasn’t the first time his assignment had affected him so profoundly. He could not watch one story, a report from Rwanda on an orphanage filled with dying refugee children, for a year, he said.

“There’s no warning for a journalist that you’re going to face something like that,” he said. “No warning that you’re going to step off a plane and that’s what you’re going to see. It’s so burned into my memory, the time we spent there.”

During his talk, students asked why he wanted to go to Iraq and whether he would choose his job again knowing what he would have to see.

Petersen said he would.

“I’ve had cameramen collapse in tears around me,” he said.

“But the responsibility is to bring the story back to (the audience). I’m not the story. (The event) is the story. And the story is so much more than anything I can say.”

Reach Libby Nelson at libbynelson@northwestern.edu.

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