A story worth your life? Jackie Spinner speaks at “Why We Go”


What journalistic story is worth risking your life for? Jackie Spinner answered this question with, “None of them and all of them.” Spinner, war correspondent and cofounder of “Conflict Zone,” spoke last week about the exhibit and about her time as a conflict journalist.
Jackie Spinner first picked up a notebook and pencil as a journalist when she was only 13-years-old. However, her career as a war correspondent began when she was hired as a staff writer for the Washington Post. After spending time writing for the business section, she eventually pleaded with her editors to go to Iraq to cover the war.
“If I don’t go, who will?” Spinner said.
Spinner ended up staying on longer than the original assignment before ending up as Bureau Chief of Washington Post in Baghdad. However, her time in between was full of extraordinary stories of loss and war.
When asked what it took to make someone want to be a war correspondent, Chris Allen, University of Nebraska at Omaha communications professor and a friend of Spinner’s, answered: “I don’t know if it’s bravery or foolishness. I think there’s a little bit of both…I think mostly what it takes is a sense of curiosity, an ability to put aside your own vulnerability and a true dedication to what journalism really is. And that is to tell stories that would not otherwise be told.”
Spinner spoke about many of the horrific aspects of war that she witnessed.
“Someday, you may be the only person in the room and someone is holding a gun to a man’s head, and you will be the only one paying attention,” Spinner said. “This is the role that we play. I don’t have a choice as a journalist, I can’t look away.”
When trying not to look away, Spinner faced many terrible sights.
“It’s a horrific thing to go cover a story where 200 people die in a car bomb, and you walk home with human flesh on your shoes,” she said. “It’s even more inhumane to say that those things don’t affect you.”
The danger of Spinner’s career was also highlighted with a story about her daily ritual. Spinner and her colleagues would take duct tape and put it on each limb of their bodies, labeling it with their last names and their blood type.
“We wrote it on every limb, so if we lost one piece, they would still be able to give you the right blood,” Spinner said.
At nights, the camps would be getting mortared and shelled so bad that the journalists were usually in danger when they were sleeping.
“I slept with my helmet over my face, not because it would save me, but because I wanted my mother to be able to identify my body,” Spinner said.
Spinner was even briefly kidnapped by Al Qaeda, before being rescued by Marines. However, Spinner said that the kidnapping didn’t scare her as much as seeing where they would have taken her if she hadn’t been rescued.
“There’s a thrill that comes in living not to die. There’s a gratitude that comes in living not to die. The business of reporting war is a deadly one,” Spinner said. “It’s a deadly, deadly game you play when you go overseas to cover conflict.”
In addition to dangerous situations, war correspondents often face an even scarier reality when they return home. Many correspondents never come back home, but many who do return with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD impairs their functioning and often leads to former correspondents drinking themselves to death, committing suicide or getting divorced.
“You can’t erase the things that you see,” said Spinner. “War is horrific.”
In many of these cases, journalists won’t admit that the images from war mentally harmed them because then they won’t be allowed to go back.
“This country does not look favorably on anyone with any mental lapse, including PTSD,” Spinner said. “I admit it, I was completely screwed up. But I’m not anymore. I don’t think I’ll ever write that part of my story. I don’t want to go through the process of remembering it, and I don’t want people to define me by that.”
During Spinner’s talk, she showed a picture of her in a hostile place in Iraq that was taken on Valentine’s day. She said that the picture was taken when she probably hadn’t showered for weeks. However, her expression in the picture still shocks her.
“Why do I look so freaking happy?” she asks. “The reason I’m happy is because there’s very little work I’ve ever done as a journalist when I’ve felt such a sense of purpose.”
Because war and politics are both highly controversial issues that often spark political hate, Spinner and other war correspondents have faced a lot of backlash for their work. Spinner spoke about the time that she was booed by 2,000 people when speaking at Berkeley, her alma mater, because she wouldn’t say what they wanted her to. Spinner also spoke about the challenge of giving up political biases for the job.
“I went to war as a journalist, not as an American,” she said. “I didn’t take my passport to battle. We don’t go to war because we’re for or against it. We go to war because there is one.”
Although it can be difficult when one is emotionally connected in a war, journalists can’t choose sides because they will lose credibility.
“Our role is to get it right, get it fair and to not take sides,” Spinner said. “It’s not to tell you what we think. It’s to tell you what we saw. You can’t edit the editorial content to tell the story you want to tell. It is objective as possible.”
Spinner vividly spoke about her hardships in adjusting back to American life. When she was working in war correspondence, Spinner felt like her work had more of an impact. “I felt like what I did mattered. I think that’s why many journalists go to war. You feel that your work matters, even if no one’s paying attention, even if the American public isn’t supportive of the press,” Spinner said. “That sense that it matters, that every minute is important, and you just have this gratitude for life. That is really hard to duplicate in other situations. It’s hard to feel like covering the school board matters.”
Spinner is now the mother of a 2-year-old son and a professor at Columbia College in Chicago. In addition, she is still a working journalist and covers the Middle East. When asked if she would ever consider going back to cover the war, Spinner answered, “Of course. I would be on a plane tonight. But I’m going to be on a plane tomorrow to go home to my son. I have a child now. That is my priority. But yes, I would go back in a heartbeat. It’s my beat. It’s what I do, and I do it very well.”
Spinner also says she misses living in the Middle East. “I miss the people, and I miss the lands. Iraq is a really awesome country. Afghanistan is so beautiful, and the people there are so beautiful.”
For students who are interested in following in Spinner’s footsteps, Dr. Allen has some advice. The first asset needed is to become sharp in your journalistic skills.
“Become a writer who can find a story and tell a story,” Allen said.
Another important part in being a war correspondent is becoming knowledgeable about geopolitics.
“You have to be almost a geographer to be a good war correspondent,” Allen said. “If you’re going to be a really good and responsible war correspondent, you have to know the world. You have to know the geography.”
Another way to become prepared for the career is to learn how to camp, including camping in the wintertime. “War correspondents live really tough lives,” Allen said. “They don’t live in luxury hotels, and people don’t cook for them everyday. It’s a really, really difficult life and you have to be ready to face that.”
Anyone who is interested in learning more about Spinner and her story can check out her memoir, entitled ‘Tell Them I Didn’t Cry’.
“It’s a really fantastic book. It’s very easy to read. She’s an excellent writer. It talks about peril and personal loss and her coming very close to being kidnapped by opposition forces there,” Allen said.
Although the book is a must-read for anyone, Spinner finds reading her own book emotionally difficult. “It’s hard for me to go back and read my book, because I can see what’s coming. I see myself falling apart in the end, and I don’t like being reminded of that.”
Spinner’s story and profession were summed up perfectly by a man in Spinner’s audience who said, “In my opinion, you guys are heroes.” Spinner later replied, “It’s a really beautiful thing to survive this and to be able to come home and talk about it.”