After shuttering bureaus, news organizations revisit Iraq

A photo taken on board a helicopter shows a US State Department helicopter flying over the Iraqi capital Baghdad carrying US Secretary of State John Kerry Monday, June 23, 2014. Kerry pledged "intense" support for Iraq against the "existential threat" of a major militant offensive pushing toward Baghdad from the north and west. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

When New York Times reporter Tim Arango arrived in Iraq in 2010, the eight-bedroom bureau was so crowded that he had to sleep on the couch.

But about two years later, he frequently found himself wandering the halls alone. Occasionally, journalists would come in and share the house, making Arango, by then the Times’ Baghdad bureau chief, feel “kind of like a bed and breakfast owner.”

When American troops left Iraq in 2011, many reporters went with them, he said. Some went back stateside, and some soon found themselves covering the Arab Spring uprising throughout the Middle East.

“I think there was a period where the reading public and the media moved on,” Arango said. He’s currently reporting from northern Iraq.

Now, with an insurgency threatening the Iraqi government and 300 United States advisors committed to halting their advance, the country has seen a sudden infusion of reporters from American news organizations, many that closed their bureaus shortly before or after the war ended.

Television networks, including CBS, Fox and CNN, have beefed up their coverage of the region, sending correspondents into Iraq or covering the situation from their Middle East offices, representatives from those networks told Poynter.

Newspapers are also bolstering their coverage. The Los Angeles Times, which closed its bureau in 2011, is reporting on the insurgency with a stringer in northern Iraq and a reporter from Baghdad, said Mark Porubcansky, the foreign editor of the L.A. Times.

The New York Times, which rotates correspondents in and out of Iraq, has dispatched four correspondents, including Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Tyler Hicks, to the country to cover the conflict, said Danielle Rhoades Ha, director of communications with The New York Times.

The Washington Post, which shuttered its bureau in 2012, now has three reporters in the country — two in Baghdad and one in Erbil, a city in northern Iraq, said Doug Jehl, the paper’s foreign editor.

The Associated Press has long had a bureau in Iraq and continued to maintain it since the war ended, said Paul Colford, the AP’s director of media relations.

Although most American news organizations closed their Iraq bureaus several years ago, many, such as McClatchy, The New York Times and The Washington Post, have consistently been providing excellent coverage of Iraq, said Jackie Spinner, a journalism professor at Columbia College and former Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post.

However, the sudden influx of news organizations that do not have consistent connections to the region have exposed one problem: finding reliable Iraqi “fixers,” journalists, translators and drivers who help reporters navigate the conflict safely and effectively.

“A western correspondent cannot just drop into Iraq right now and tell the story without a really good Iraqi fixer,” Spinner said.

Although most news organizations are relying on relationships with local journalists to cover the conflict, there is disagreement as to whether a bureau is an essential ingredient to covering Iraq.

CNN, which closed its bureau in 2012, maintained contact with a network of local stringers and relied on them to help cover the insurgency when it flared up in recent weeks, said Bridget Leininger, a representative from CNN.

“It is a debate that is going on all the time as the technology gets better and better — why have a big bureau if I can shoot video from my phone and publish it?” she wrote in an email. “Some of this equipment is small enough that you can fit it in a backpack, and set up a live global transmission from anywhere in the world. That makes it easier for travel and getting to challenging locations, with a more nimble team.”

But Spinner cautions that bureaus can foster long-term connections with a region, the type necessary to provide context when covering complex situations.

“It’s expensive to do foreign news coverage, and news organizations are trying to figure out how to provide that coverage in the environment we’re operating in,” she said. “I don’t think the solution is to have journalists parachute in and out of the story.”

Above: A photo taken on board a helicopter shows a US State Department helicopter flying over the Iraqi capital Baghdad carrying US Secretary of State John Kerry Monday, June 23, 2014. Kerry pledged “intense” support for Iraq against the “existential threat” of a major militant offensive pushing toward Baghdad from the north and west. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

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