Grey Area

In Conversation with David Rohde

by Madeleine Matsui

published October 30, 2015

Twice-captured and twice the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, David Rohde has had a treacherous yet accomplished career in journalism. Starting out as one of the founding editors of the College Hill Independent in 1990, now, at the age of 48, Rohde has witnessed firsthand some of the world’s worst atrocities. While working as the Eastern European correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Zagreb, Croatia, Rohde was the first outside eyewitness of the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995. Rohde was held captive by Bosnian Serb authorities and later released after a series of diplomatic negotiations. His crucial reporting on the massacre not only informed the world of what was happening on the ground, but also illustrated the negligence of the United Nations and the rest of the international community. More than a decade later in Afghanistan, Rohde and his two associates were conducting research when they were kidnapped by members of the Taliban. Rohde eventually escaped after being held for seven months, during which the New York Times implored news media not to publicize information about his abduction. 

These days, Rohde is much more risk-averse. He says he is unwilling to put his wife and family through any more trauma, especially now that he has two young daughters. On the phone, Rohde’s speech is measured, his tone serious, cautious, and quietly impassioned. Despite his uncensored exposure to and personal experience with the highest levels of human cruelty and suffering, he is surprisingly optimistic. 




The College Hill Independent: With the benefit of hindsight, if you could go back to Bosnia in 1995 and Afghanistan in 2008, would you do anything differently?

David Rohde: I would take the risks that I took in Bosnia again because that was to expose a massacre of 8,000 men and boys. But I would definitely say that interviewing a Taliban commander was a mistake. I should have…It was a mistake, period. I urge young journalists to think through what the best possible story they’ll get out of taking a risk. Proving a massacre is worth the risk. Interviewing a Taliban commander is not, in hindsight.


The Indy: It seems like a challenging task for journalists to assess the risks inherent in foreign reporting, especially in war-torn areas. There is definitely less money in journalism now—less money to fund foreign reporting trips, to adequately compensate journalists and more freelance reporting. Given these changes and considering the dangers of reporting from warzones, is journalism fated to be more domestically-focused? How should news organizations weigh the priorities of journalists’ safety against maintaining quality international reporting?

DR: I think there is a growing danger that the quality of international reporting is going to drop because of the lack of a successful business model. It hasn’t happened yet, but no news organization has found a way to produce digital revenues that match the print revenues of the past. Some have a lot of venture capital funding—that will run out. 

At the same time, it’s more dangerous and therefore more expensive than ever to report abroad safely. So I’m very worried about those two trends. The one place where there is definitely less coverage is Syria. But I wouldn’t blame that on economics. I would blame that on first the Syrian government of President Assad essentially targeting journalists and then, more recently, ISIS intentionally targeting journalists. So very few journalists are going into Syria not because of the cost but because of the unprecedented danger. The victims of [this lack of reporting] are average Syrians who continue to die in huge and tragic numbers—and the world doesn’t know about it. 


The Indy: Clearly, there is a lot at stake when journalists are prevented—for a variety of reasons—from doing their jobs and reporting from war-ravaged places. Is there any way to mitigate these challenges to quality reporting in journalism today? 

DR: There are a variety of non-profit groups that have emerged that will fund international reporting. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University, the Ground Proof Project in Boston and Round Earth Media in Minneapolis all offer travel grants and other support for young journalists who want to go abroad. Those groups haven’t made up for the decrease in the number of foreign bureaus among newspapers and television networks but they are really positive signs and I would encourage young people to apply for grants from those organizations. Many young journalists don’t know about their existence and I want more people to know about them.

You’re recording this so you can get all the names down, right? 


The Indy: Yes! Speaking of young people, my generation is increasingly turning towards alternative news outlets such as VICE News, which happens to be notorious for paying its employees poorly. With the rising popularity of these contemporary news sources and the possibility that they become more profitable, do you foresee the practice of poorly compensating journalists changing any time soon?

DR: The problem isn’t VICE or any specific news outlet. The problem is low digital ad rates. To generate the budget that you need to have a large news room or to have broad and safe foreign reporting, you have to have an enormous number of people watching or an enormous number of people coming to your website. There is a danger when you have to attract such large audiences that the quality will drop, [that] nuance will decrease and things will get more sensational. It’s the low digital ad rates that are the problem. It’s not that the people who run VICE are bad, or that there’s some easy solution. Everyone is facing this challenge of having to get millions of readers, whereas in the past you could be profitable with several hundred thousand readers. 


The Indy: At the same time, TV stations are reporting record numbers of viewers for events such as the presidential debates. How do you think the broader changes in journalism you’ve mentioned will impact politics and coverage of the upcoming election?

DR: It would help to stick to the facts of people’s records and their actual statements. I know that sounds boring and old-fashioned but there’s such an intense pressure on the 24/7 news cycle to have something new. I worry that the intense pressure for traffic will lead to intense partisan speculation. This is such an important election that I don’t think that will serve anybody well. 

I worry that a sort of FOX/MSNBC dynamic has emerged where the incredibly complicated problems the country faces get boiled down to simplistic stories that make viewers think, “there are easy solutions to these problems, it’s just that the morons on the other side of the political divide can’t see them.” I’ve found in my reporting that there is a lot of grey. I did a three-part series for Reuters on income inequality. It’s a very complex array of changes [that includes] global economics, US tax policy, the dominance of Wall Street, weakness in the US Education System. All of these things have come together to cause inequality, so it’s not as simple as partisans present it. [It is] the same thing with the rise of ISIS. But I think reinforcing people’s existing worldviews is one way to generate traffic. So I worry that partisan coverage will dominate the 2016 election. It always has, it’s just partisan news seems to be a formula to make money in a very fragmented news market. So you can get a pretty small but very partisan audience and make a profit in cable TV. That concerns me. I’m being kind of boring, I’m sorry. 


The Indy: This is far from boring. Partisan reporting seems easy, as opposed to creating thoughtful, original reporting. How do you stay balanced in your reporting?

DR: I’m an investigative reporter at Reuters and we have strict guidelines here on being neutral. I think we need more facts in our news and on our websites and on our television and less partisanship. There is an inability to agree on basic facts, you know. Is inequality rising? Is global warming getting worse? Is ISIS a threat to the United States? It’s really causing a drop in the quality of our political debate and culture and that is really dangerous and paralyzing government. It’s worse than when I was at Brown, what, 20 years ago, in 1990.

I sound like an old Brown grad but I’ve seen it change in my lifetime and it’s much worse. There isn’t basic consensus on certain facts and challenges we face as a society and that is a real problem. We don’t agree on what the problem is, let alone how to solve it. That’s really disturbing to me. 


The Indy: Did the media become more polarized and cause public opinion to become more polarized, or is it the other way around? What do you think is the role of the Internet and social media in all of this?

DR: I think cable TV news has become more polarized, no question. I think the web offers more information than ever for serious readers and that’s an enormous blessing and a tool. It’s not clear yet but I worry that the same pattern in cable news—[where] people watch the news that reinforces their world view—will happen to people who read websites that reinforce their world view. I would urge people to read skeptically. But you guys all know that already.