Photo courtesy to Clarissa Ward.
Carnegie Mellon University

Globe-trotting storyteller: An interview with CNN journalist Clarissa Ward

Braving war zones in the Middle East, sometimes covered in black abayas to witness and report the stories there firsthand, CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward has made her living– and won numerous awards for– reporting from some of the most volatile regions in the world. While the bulk of her work consists of telling other people’s stories to the world, in an interview conducted over email, she shines a spotlight on her own journey to becoming an international reporter and her personal thoughts about the field she is in.

Before the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Ward had aspired to become an actress. As the attacks seeped into the American consciousness, Ward, at that time a college senior at Yale University, wondered about what kind of forces would motivate people to commit such atrocities against strangers.

“I thought, as an American, why do they hate us so much? We’ve got to understand this better,” she recalled in a MORE magazine interview in 2015. She continued in the MORE interview that “it made [her] want to get on a plane the next day and go to Afghanistan and talk to people,” which ultimately drove her into the field of journalism.

“I always loved traveling and story-telling and languages and so journalism seemed like a natural fit for me,” she reflected, in the email interview with High School Insider.

Fresh out of college with a degree in Comparative Literature, she moved to Moscow to do an internship with CNN. At that time, her impression of Moscow was, in her words, “big, cold, grey and a bit lonely. It was a tough few months because Moscow isn’t the easiest place to settle into [for a foreigner],” Ward remembered.

A quick scroll through Ward’s Wikipedia page shows a resume dotted with the names of the major American television networks.

She started her full-time journalism career at the overnight desk in Fox News, working her way up to Beirut correspondent, a position she held until 2007. Her initial experience in Moscow would also prove invaluable: after she left Fox, she was based in the Russian capital again for ABC News. Eventually, she became a correspondent for CBS News and in 2015, a senior international correspondent for CNN, a story that can be written almost as tracing a complete circle back to where she launched her career.

Over her years as a correspondent, she has racked up an abundance of memorable experiences that cover all parts of the emotional spectrum.

There were the terrifying moments that are part of a war zone journalist’s experiences. She survived a suicide car bomb attack while reporting in Baghdad; she was 25 years old. She has snuck into Syria about a dozen times disguised as a tourist in order to report on the civil war because the government there banned journalists from entering. She was held by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine for 24 hours.

There were the exhilarating moments or the ones that made your mouth go agape. She did her first live shot at age 26. She had rappelled down an active volcano crater (in a special heat-resistant suit, of course) in Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific. She considered winning her first Peabody Award a “tremendously exciting and proud moment.” She had the opportunity to speak in front of the United Nations on the situation in Syria, drawing on her extensive reporting from that region.

And there were overwhelmingly heartbreaking moments as well: mourning the loss of her friends James Foley and Peter Kassig, both captured by ISIS and killed gruesomely in videos the terrorists posted for the world to see.

Scrolling through a few of her reports on any of the media outlets she has worked in reveals Ward’s passion for the Middle East, which she explains began when she “first visited Abu Dhabi when [she] was 14 years old”.

What struck her about one of the most volatile regions in the world were “[t]he richness of the culture and the history, the warmth and hospitality of the people, [and] the splendor of the mosques and the architecture of the old cities of Damascus and Cairo,” quite contrary to most Americans’ impression of the Middle East as simply a dangerous war zone with terrorist groups filling power vacuums left behind by anarchy.

She concludes, “[t]here is no place on earth quite like the Middle East.” The undercurrent of her reflections on the Middle East seems to be that one place or one thing never has a single sided nature; it is often worthwhile getting to know a side that one has not seen before.

Some of her memorable pieces include ones where she challenges jihadists on televised interviews. Viewers have wondered how she faces these people who have joined a violent cause that decent people find abhorrent.

So I put that question to her.

“I like to think that I ask challenging questions but yelling in someone’s face is never going to yield much,” she explains, when asked how she navigates the fine line between being tough with her questions and being rude.

She continues with journalistic poise: “My job is to get people to talk, to open them up, to provide information for the viewer. I need to be probing and challenging in how I do that but the interview shouldn’t be all about me and what I am feeling or what I want to hear. The goal is to get the viewer the facts and the perspective and let them draw their own conclusions.”

I also wondered how she gets jihadists to sit down for an interview with a Western journalist who does not wear a hijab.

“I do it by being fair and direct and by educating myself as much as I can about the issues they are discussing. I have read and studied an enormous amount about Islam, about Syria, about the nature of jihad,” Ward explains. She is able to see that “[m]ost people who are considering giving an interview want to feel that they will be given a fair shake by someone who understands the topic well.”

Her work has earned her a fair number of followers who admire her courage and compassion in her reporting– and some critics and people who post hateful comments as well. Despite this and the dangerous nature of the job, she persists in the field of journalism because she “see[s] this as a calling.”

“Simply put, there’s nothing else I would want to do,” she explained.

Ward expresses this sentiment even though she witnesses a colossal amount of suffering on the job, and she acknowledges that this can “take a toll.”

“The important thing is to maintain your calm and professionalism in the moment[,] and then, once you are back home, you can take the time to. . .process what you’ve seen and experienced,” Ward maintains.

She is grateful to her friends, family and husband, all of whom she says “[allow her] a degree of enforced normalcy in [her] life”.

She is also able to see the silver lining beyond the dark-cloud type stories that make up the bulk of her journalistic beat.

“As much as you witness sadness and suffering and death and destruction, you also see tremendous goodness and sacrifice and strength and resilience. The human spirit is awe-inspiring and it is good to be reminded of that,” she asserts.

As intrepid, skilled, and passionate as Ward is, she always strives to learn even more about the world around her and to be a better reporter. She drew much inspiration from her close friend, role model, and mentor– Bob Simon, a fellow war correspondent at CBS News.

In a few succinct words, she captured the wide mix of traits her mentor had: “competitive[,] tenacious[,] funny[,] moody” and someone who had an “incredible ability to understand human nature.” And like many other journalists, she looked up to him for his writing prowess that transformed how a viewer saw and felt about the story.

When Simon, who had survived 40 days in an Iraqi jail mostly in solitary confinement, was killed in a car crash, a heartbroken Ward tweeted: “This afternoon I sat in Bob Simon’s office and we bantered- ‘what are [you] working on kiddo? Are [you] gonna lead the show this weekend?’ Such loss.”

His passing left his family, friends and millions of viewers to mourn– and left a larger-than-life legacy that Ward and journalists like her continue bringing to life.

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