Sun panel weighs perils and reward of reporting from war zones

March 29, 2016

The following article appeared on baltimoresun.com on March 29.

Former Baltimore Sun correspondent Dan Fesperman told an audience at his old newspaper how he was roaming around Bosnia and came across groups of refugees being used as pawns to hold territory. Croat and Muslim forces were putting them in towns abandoned by the Serbs, Fesperman said.

The Huffington Post’s David Wood described sweet talking his way into the old Walter Reed hospital and discovering a wounded Marine who ended up becoming a key figure in a 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning series.

The discussion was one of four the Baltimore Sun and the Maryland Humanities Council are hosting this spring to mark the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prizes. Dozens of similar events are being held around the country.

Newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer left money in his will that funded the journalism school at Columbia University and the namesake prizes that recognize works of journalism, literature, history, drama and biography. The bequest was designed to foster professionalism in journalism as the press moved away from the sensationalism that dominated in Pulitzer’s own era.

Mike Pride, who now administers the prizes, said Pulitzer made a smart decision to link the journalism prizes to those for arts with a loftier reputation. In the 21st century, the prizes aim to reward the same high quality journalism even as the business model to fund it has run into trouble.

“What we’re learning in the transition wherever it’s headed, what we’re learning is you need to have an independent press, an independent journalistic enterprise to challenge power,” Pride said.

Fesperman and Wood both described traveling overseas without the support of the military and the danger that entailed. Frequently they had to rely on the advice and aid of strangers to get by.

On an early overseas assignment, Wood said, he had no training and “just sort of bumbled my way through it.” But the protection that comes from embedding with military units carries its own perils. It gets hard to distance yourself from the troops who keep you safe, and that can make it difficult to write critical stories, Wood said. So, an important lesson he shares with new journalists heading to cover wars is to write a motto on their notebooks: “I am not one of them.”

There are two more journalism panels in the series. On April 19 reporters will discuss challenges facing Baltimore, and on May 10 the topic will be the environment. Panels are free and open to the public and begin at 7 p.m. at The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St.

Copyright A(c) 2016, The Baltimore Sun

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