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Reporter talks about Iraq war, Katrina

Emma Driscoll | Tuesday, February 13, 2007

When Sarah Childress began her freshman year at Notre Dame, she had no plans to pursue journalism. But she started writing for Scholastic, and since graduating in 2003, Childress has covered both the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina for Newsweek magazine.

Childress returned to campus Monday to speak to journalism students about her experiences and gave advice about breaking into the profession.

As a national affairs reporter for Newsweek, Childress described her job as “exciting,” because she can walk into work Monday morning and be assigned a story that may take her to another state the next day.

Besides traveling across the country, Childress completed several reporting stints in Iraq – an opportunity she said she never thought she’d receive.

“I had always really wanted to go cover the war, but it just seemed like something that would be impossible for a reporter so young and with less experience,” Childress said.

But when Newsweek needed more correspondents, Childress volunteered for the assignment.

A year passed before she actually went to Iraq, Childress said, because she had to undergo preparations to enter the war-torn country, including a weeklong training camp on surviving hostile environments.

Newsweek is the only news organization that has a house in Iraq’s green zone, Childress said, but “it is so dangerous right now that you don’t leave the house.”

That confinement, she said, makes reporting “very frustrating.”

Most of the interviewing has to be done by Newsweek’s Iraqi staff members because many Iraqis are afraid to talk to Westerners. To get its reporting done, the Newsweek team gives its Iraqi staffers a list of questions and sends them off – a difficult process, Childress said, since they aren’t trained journalists.

Staff members often fail to ask follow-up questions and are not persistent in contacting sources. To make up for this, Childress said she has to provide a very specific list of questions for the interviewers.

Childress was most surprised by the real – and random – dangers that she saw in Iraq.

“I was really surprised by how bad it actually is,” Childress said. “You know the risk. You know the danger when you go over there, but it’s impossible to actually understand until you’re over there. It’s kind of the randomness of the violence. War isn’t constant attacks. It’s a little more intermittent.”

Childress also left New York for New Orleans to report on Hurricane Katrina.

“The assignment was just sort of go and cover it. They didn’t give us instructions,” she said. “My job was to cover the people. Who was left? What was happening to them? How were they surviving?”

Without strict guidelines, “you kind of make it up as you go along,” Childress said. “You find somewhere to start, pick up that thread, and you just follow that thread wherever it takes you.”

During the question and answer portion of Childress’ talk, students asked about journalism internships and the journalism profession.

“The hardest thing about getting into the business is getting your foot in the door,” Childress said.

Childress called her local paper several times to pursue an internship when she was in college. “You really do need to be persistent. Take advantage of any contact that you have,” said Childress, explaining that many journalism jobs are not posted on job boards.

“The best thing you can do is get exposure to other journalists and talk to them,” she said.

While some may fear job cuts in the news and media profession, Childress said the news will always be necessary.

“People are always going to need a reliable news source,” she said. “They need good, talented journalists who are ethical.”