Palestinians inspect the ruins of Watan Tower destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza city, on October 8, 2023.

Credit: Wafa in contract with a local company (APAimages) via Wikimedia

"Most of my colleagues never decided to do the job, it just happened through circumstance," says Andrea Backhaus, a war and conflict reporter with more than 10 years of experience in the field.

She was living in Egypt when the Arab Spring was unfolding in the early 2010s. Covering the uprisings and protests spurred her onto a freelance career that has taken her recently into the conflict zones of Ukraine and Palestine.

Speaking on an episode of the Journalism.co.uk podcast, Backhaus discussed the lessons she has learned along the way.

Andrea Backhaus

Be streetwise

In her line of work, Backhaus has had her phone tapped, been followed in the streets and has been attacked physically by men. These are very real dangers that journalists must anticipate.

Sources are also at risk. Backhaus has seen some of her interviewees arrested shortly after speaking to them. Think twice about interviewing in open areas where you can become easy targets.

"Never be the story or sacrifice yourself for the story," she says. Also, be aware of the tensions that can run high as armed soldiers may feel overwhelmed, too. Do not approach them thoughtlessly.

Get training

Hostile environment training is crucial, not just because it teaches you what to do if you are kidnapped or injured. These roleplay exercises build mental resilience but also help you discover whether you are cut out for this job.

"If you are in a dangerous situation, you need to function," explains Backhaus. First aid is also an underestimated skill that can make all the difference in a critical moment.

"Nobody and nothing prepares you for such a level of violence and escalation, it's something you experience and see whether you can take it or not."

To embed, or not to embed

Many reporters have gained access to conflict zones like Gaza through "embeds", which means going to a conflict zone with an army. However, there are many trade-offs.

"It doesn’t show the full picture, it just shows you a very tiny spot and what they want you to see," explains Backhaus.

"You’re not allowed to talk to civilians - and that’s my main job, I would say - so it’s a very orchestrated situation and it’s not independent journalism. I’m not saying it’s completely wrong, but it’s not what I do."

Pick your colleagues well

Journalists will need a range of teammates, like translators, drivers and producers. Early on, this can be overlooked in terms of importance. Look to work with people who you can truly rely on.

"It’s a life or death situation, you are very much dependent on your teammates, so now I spend much more time figuring out who I want to work with."

Don't take it personally

A few years ago, Backhaus sat down to interview a Hamas leader, which took several weeks to secure. She was accused of being an Israeli spy, he refused to shake her hand because she was a woman, and she was ultimately thrown out midway through the interview.

She expected all of this, though. Hostility is rarely, if ever, personal. Understand that you are seen merely as an extension of your industry and country.

"I knew it’s not about Andrea, it’s about me representing Western media and Western governments."

Sitting in the middle

Journalists reporting on polarising conflicts can face abuse from both sides when their coverage suits neither of them.

"I am not an activist, joining marches, waving flags or calling for boycotts, this is not my role," says Backhaus, adding that speaking to one side can lead to attacks and calls to attention from the other.

It can be a lonely and isolating place, she continues, underscoring the need for a strong support network and healthy coping mechanism.

War reporters especially can find solace in the wrong places, and Backhaus has seen colleagues turn to alcohol or put themselves - and those around them - into needless danger as a way of getting by.

As you get older and wiser, you learn to understand and accept your limitations. Self-care is essential, and so when she returns from a trip, she reconnects with friends and family and stops following the conflict by switching off social media and not reading the comments on news stories.

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