The Profile Dossier: Clarissa Ward, the Journalist Covering the World's Most Dangerous Places
"When you do this work you see the worst of humanity, but you also see the best."
Clarissa Ward is a teller of the hardest stories in the world's most dangerous places.
Ward is a conflict reporter who moves from hot zone to hot zone all over the world. She speaks seven languages and has completed multiple assignments in Syria, Egypt, Russia, China, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Most recently, she was working 19-hour days in Kabul, Afghanistan, covering the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s sudden return to power. She delivered her reports calmly without showing too much emotion on air.
At one point, she spoke with a Taliban fighter who shoved his hand forward to block her cameraman’s lens, told her to cover her face, and waved a whip made of heavy chain and a padlock. He told her that the chaotic scene around the Kabul airport was America’s fault.
“I appear calm, but that doesn’t mean I am calm,” she said. “I don’t panic because you can’t panic in those situations. If you are someone who panics, then you probably should be doing a different job, because it will get you into more trouble. But it doesn’t mean I’m calm on the inside. That’s just the way I deal with fear: I get quiet and very focused.”
That seemingly superhuman ability to focus in high-stress situations is part of what has made Ward a world-renowned war-zone correspondent. She gives viewers a rare look at the events happening on the ground, often contradicting what the political heads are telling their citizens on the other side of the globe.
Interestingly though, Ward's upbringing is quite paradoxical to the work she does today.
She was born in London to an American mother and a British father. Her mom worked as an interior designer, and her dad was an investment banker. She had 11 different nannies by the age of 8. Her family lived in New York City's Upper East Side for a little bit, and Ward went on to attend elite British boarding schools. "I’m an only child, and while I had a very privileged upbringing in London, I was always a bit lonely as a kid," she says.
Ward's passion for international reporting arose from a passion of learning new languages and understanding foreign cultures. “It may sound a little corny and clichéd,” she says, but the events of Sept. 11, 2001, gave her a new perspective on life.
“It [became] clear to me that there was a huge chasm between the way we perceived ourselves as a nation and the way the rest of the world perceived us," she said.
It forced her to begin asking uncomfortable questions and helped her develop an "insatiable appetite" to better understand what was going on around the world. She already spoke French and Italian but added Russian and Arabic to her course load.
“It sounds presumptuous, but I knew I had to go to the front lines, to hear the stories of people who lived there and tell them to the people back home,” she wrote in her book.
Ward began her journalism career in 2003 as an overnight desk assistant at Fox News, working from 12 a.m. to 9 a.m. She worked her way up to international correspondent and covered the execution of Saddam Hussein, the Iraq War troop surge of 2007, the Beirut Arab University riots, and the 2007 Bikfaya bombings.
From there, she spent several years at ABC and CBS before becoming the chief international correspondent for CNN, where she has worked for the last six years.
Ward is very clear about the fact that she understands the risks associated with her profession, but she wouldn't change anything about what she does for a living. She has smuggled herself in and out of war-torn countries, witnessed suicide bombings, and interviewed activists, rebels, and terrorists.
“I absolutely love my job. I feel so privileged,” she says. “I get to travel the world, I get to witness history… and I’m constantly inspired by the different amazing characters I meet along the way.”
At the end of the day, Ward sees herself as "a translator between worlds" who helps remind the viewer that "beyond the geopolitics of power and the brutality of war and the clashes of cultures, people are people.”
On covering war zones: On All Fronts is Ward's memoir that covers her first 15 years as an international correspondent covering various areas of crisis. From her multiple stints entrenched with Syrian rebels to her deep investigations into the Western extremists who are drawn to ISIS, Ward has captured the depths of fear and suffering all over the world. (This memoir has a near-perfect score on Goodreads.)
On reporting from Kabul: Ward has become one of the most visible reporters during the withdrawal of U.S. troops. She delivered her accounts, often with gunfire ringing in the background, on what it was like in Kabul in the often chaotic final days of America’s longest war. Here's why she continues to tell the human stories from the front lines of war.
On reporting while pregnant: Ward learned she was pregnant two years after accepting an international correspondent job with CNN’s London bureau in 2015. "I was determined to be different, to take pregnancy and childbirth in stride," she says, adding that she didn't tell her colleagues right away. She went on to cover really taxing assignments because she "couldn’t quiet the niggling fear in the back of my mind that if I slowed down, I would become irrelevant." Here's how pregnancy didn't stop her from doing her job, but it did alter her perspective.
On leaving Afghanistan: After reporting on the chaos and danger at the airport in Kabul following the Taliban takeover of the city, Ward got on an Air Force C-17 to Doha, Qatar, along with hundreds of evacuees. "We're so protected from those moments of just sheer survival, usually, in our Western lives," she says. "And this was a moment where there was no veneer of respectability or politeness. It was push and shove and scrape and push to get in there and get out safely."
On elevating the voices that matter: Ward explains that she does this job because she cares about the voices of the people whose everyday lives are affected by these conflicts some of us only see on TV. If there aren't people on the ground listening and engaging with the civilians caught in the crossfire of these conflict zones, she says, then their voices don't get heard. "The voices we usually hear are the soldiers, the militants, the geopolitics, the world leaders," she says. "And this brave elderly woman who just ripped out a roadside bomb and is screaming at someone to get it out of her neighborhood — that's not a voice that we hear from enough."
On 36 hours with the Taliban: In 2019, Ward spent 36 hours behind Taliban lines in northern Afghanistan, finding herself on the opposing side of America’s war. Her 36 hours with the group provided an extraordinary window into a desolate world frozen in time. If you're curious to see what life under the Taliban is really like, this segment is a must-watch.
On the education of a journalist: Ward began her journalism career working on the overnight assignment desk at Fox News. She would get to work at midnight and leave at 9 a.m. "It's baptism by fire," she says. "It's a great place to begin that education. It's not something that happens overnight." Here's how she took the role that no one wanted — her first international assignment in Baghdad in 2005 — and why it fueled her desire to report from the front lines.
On the importance of fear: During her assignments, Ward experiences fear just like the rest of us. The difference is that she doesn't panic. "I get scared, and that's important because fear is there for a reason," she says. "It's telling you when you're doing something stupid, so listen to it." This is a wide-ranging conversation on the nature of Ward's work and why she does not do it because it makes her feel glamorous or brave.
On dealing with trauma: Ward says her job allows her to have a front-row seat to history, but she emphasizes that war zone reporters are also at risk of developing PTSD. There are cases of her colleagues who abuse alcohol or drugs after witnessing war, famine, and genocide. "I can't stress enough how important it is for anyone who does this job to be in therapy," she says.
Communication can break cultural barriers: It may be hard to break down the walls of the unfamiliar especially when you're in a different country where you don't look or sound like the locals. Ward has been able to communicate on a much more personal level with the civilians on the ground largely thanks to her language skills. She speaks English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese. She takes the time to learn the local dialects of the region she’s covering rather than relying on a translator. And, of course, speaking the language helps her to quickly recognize when a situation is “getting a bit dodgy” and when to get herself to safety. Learning a new language is the key to communication, collaboration, and a better understanding of our fellow humans.
Be truthful, not neutral: Journalists are taught to be objective and emotionless arbiters on the sidelines who dispassionately observe and record an event. But Christiane Amanpour once proposed the idea of being “truthful, not neutral," and this is the philosophy that Ward subscribes to as well. “I think that’s a really helpful mantra for journalists," she says. "It doesn’t mean that you should throw away the facts, or become an activist rather than a journalist — there are still parameters we must work within." But it does allow for room to record the vivid nature of our shared humanity. In other words, it's OK to allow a place to break your heart while simultaneously fulfilling your professional duties. It's possible to do both.
Look for the good: Whether it's reporting from a war zone or simply going on a trip, Ward believes you need to find reasons to be joyful. "I feel incredible guilt about enjoying myself when I know what is happening in the world," she says. "But you have to be able to embrace joy without guilt, to recognize the privilege you have not to be living in a conflict zone, and to celebrate love, friends, and family — whatever brings you joy." Remember, no matter what you do for work, you need breaks, you need space, and you need tiny moments of joy.
Enduring change happens one step at a time: How does Ward keep hope alive when she's seen so much suffering in the world? "I have a fundamental belief in good as well as evil," she says. "When you do this work you see the worst of humanity, but you also see the best." Her work has allowed her to develop a better understanding of what is possible and realistic. Rather than hoping for an end to all conflict and suffering, she says we can all create more humble goals to attach our hope wagon to. Whenever she tells one story really well, she imagines five people who will be genuinely moved so that they may donate money to a charity, write a letter to their congressperson, or simply care about a cause they never did before. "If you keep your goals within the realm of what is feasible, then you can sustain hope," she says. "Have a humbler set of goals, a realistic approach, and a fundamental belief that people can, and will, do beautiful things."
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"I don't deal with hypotheticals. I deal with reality."
"When you're out in the field and spending time in these different places around the world, humility is one of the most important assets that will serve you well."
“How many times I have been reminded that people are people, that there is a shared human experience, no matter how different our societies, that connects us.”
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