CNN Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward often cites her “peripatetic upbringing” as the spark for her wanderlust.
Born in London, the only child of an American mother and British father, she moved to Manhattan, then back again to London, with a rotating cast of nannies (11 by the time she was 8) along the way. Her father soon moved to Hong Kong, though her parents never divorced, and she was shipped off to boarding school at age 10.
An unrepentant rebel, she found London too stuffy and headed back across the pond to Yale as a comparative literature major, attending naked parties, smoking weed and performing in theater. Then, during her senior year, two passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Center. Embarrassed by her previous lack of interest in world events and gripped by a desire to communicate their importance, a newly forged conflict journalist arose from Lower Manhattan’s ashes.
An internship in CNN’s Moscow bureau led to award-winning stints at Fox News, ABC and CBS. She returned to CNN in 2015, where she is the network’s chief international correspondent, based in London. She’s covered everything from hurricanes in the U.S. to conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, the West Bank and Ukraine, the Manchester concert bombing, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and attempted murder of Russian presidential candidate Alexei Navalny and much more.
Ward speaks six languages — fluent French and Italian, conversational Russian and Arabic, some Spanish and basic Mandarin. As if reinforcing her global citizen status, during our interview, even her English veered charmingly, unpredictably, from British to American inflection.
Did you always have a taste for adventure and danger?
My father took me to Hong Kong when I was 14 and we used to go on vacation every summer to India, or Indonesia, or Vietnam, all of these extraordinary places I was very privileged to get to visit because he lived in Asia. I loved having those adventures and experiences as a kid. Maybe it was that I was kind of naughty in school rather than adventurous, but I always wanted to travel. There was a school trip to Russia when I was 17, and none of the other girls wanted to go, but my best friend and I were like, “Definitely!”
Are you an adrenaline junkie?
I still love having adventures in my life. It’s just that I do so much traveling that in my spare time I tend to be much more grounded. When I’m not working, I’m not somebody who’s climbing mountains or running marathons. I’m more likely to be playing Scrabble by the pool or eating goat cheese or something super relaxed. I might go as far as taking long walks, but I have no real compulsion toward finding adventure at home. I have plenty of it in my day job.
What’s the process when you’re at home and war breaks out? How do you shift from homebody to war correspondent?
It’s always tough, because when you’re at home, things are sort of running on a schedule, which is really important when you have kids. [Ward has two young sons]. And then world events just throw a spanner in all your plans, which I should be used to by now, but somehow you don’t ever really get used to it. It’s always a challenge to know when to pull the trigger or when to just be watching a story closely. I would say there are very few assignments I would turn down. I’ll still go to war zones and cover conflict, but I do try to be extra cautious.
Do you have any rituals to prepare yourself to leave?
There’s a Russian proverb that basically says, “Before traveling, sit down.” Before I go on a trip, I try to sit for a moment and take a beat, and usually you remember something you’ve forgotten, or sometimes it just helps you clear your head before you go on a journey.
I also carry this Sura from the Koran, which was given to me in 2012 by a young woman in Syria as I was preparing to illegally cross the border from Syria into Turkey. She said it was for my protection and it was just a really beautiful moment. Ever since then I’ve carried it with me. [As Ward noted in an Instagram post, Sura Ya-Sin is the 36th chapter of the Koran, recited for protection or to make one invisible to the enemy. It says, “And We have put a barrier in front of them and a barrier behind them, and further, We have covered them up; so that they cannot see.”]
When you arrive in a new, unstable environment, do you tend to rely on bravado, muscle memory, or skill?
I don’t think it’s muscle memory. Over the years you train your mind. And it’s not that you train your mind not to feel fear, because fear is important and informs decisions, and that has a clear evolutionary role. But you learn how to ensure that the rational mind is in control and is the one making decisions, because fear and panic are very closely linked.
In your autobiography, you mentioned that a male colleague once bragged to you, “In the 1990s you could get laid in Russia for a bar of chocolate.” Thankfully, that kind of journalistic presence has changed. But do you still see differences between the way you and male correspondents cover conflict?
I do think it has changed a lot, and a big part of that is having women take on many more of these roles and have a much larger presence. Don’t forget, for a long time, in conservative Muslim countries or conservative parts of Muslim countries, women’s voices weren’t being heard and their stories weren’t being told because men didn’t have access to them.
Geopolitics and strategy and all of that is important, but I also firmly believe that the humanity and suffering and
stories of civilians are hugely important. I do think women tend to put a real emphasis on that and tell stories in a way that is designed to appeal to our shared sense of humanity and enable people who don’t know about a conflict, place, people or culture to connect with these stories on a basic human level.
To me, that is tremendously exciting and a shift I see more and more. It’s less of the “Voice of God,” with correspondents telling you, “On the front lines today, you can see X, Y and Z…” and more moments of reportage where there’s a sense of authenticity, organic moments playing out, and a sense of connection.
Covering war, I often joke that it’s a wonderful thing to be underestimated sometimes. We’re not necessarily seen as a threat; we’re more of a curiosity. I’ve been able to sit in the back of a car and pretend to sleep and drive right through hostile checkpoints. At the same time, I’m not treated with all the stringent rules and traditions that apply to women in places like Afghanistan and Syria. I’m usually allowed to talk to the men, as well. So, it’s the freedom of moving between both worlds and having access to two different sides of the one place. [Even if it means doing so while trailing a few feet behind, as she had to do when interviewing a Taliban governor before the group returned to power, or being shoved aside after.]
Who helps put together a story on the ground?
The core team is myself, field producer Brent Swails and cameraman Scott McWhinnie. But then, in Ukraine, for example, we’ll have a security consultant who will always work with a local producer, we’ll always work with a local driver, and those colleagues will be Ukrainian. They’re hugely important because they’re bringing local knowledge. They know when to turn the car around when something doesn’t look right or if we’re lost. So, in that scenario, you might have six or seven people on a team. I’ve done other stories where I’ve gone alone or with one other person. Each story’s a bit different and you have to make the right call for each case.
Throughout your years as a foreign correspondent, you’ve lost many colleagues, including your friend, freelance journalist and Marine Corps veteran Austin Tice, who was kidnapped in Damascus in 2012 and remains missing. What’s the current landscape for freelancers versus those supported by major news bureaus?
Previously, I felt news organizations weren’t doing enough to protect our freelance brothers and sisters. In Syria, some editors would say, “We’re not going to pay you to go in, but if you get anything good on the front lines, give us a call and maybe we’ll buy it.” So, you had a lot of young, relatively inexperienced freelancers going in without proper experience, insurance, training or a flak jacket and helmet, and without an editor who’d shout at them, “No, you can’t do that, it’s too dangerous!”
Now it’s more often the case that if a freelancer is going to work with a publication, that publication is really responsible for them while they’re on the ground and will play a role in ensuring they stay safe. There are also incredible organizations, like the Rory Peck Trust, that will help freelancers get body armor or hostile environment training, for example, at much-reduced costs, because those things are prohibitively expensive. I hope we’ll continue to see these positive trends.
What advice would you give reporters looking to get into conflict journalism?
This job is not for the faint of heart. It might look glamorous and exciting, but parts of it are exhausting, demoralizing and often tedious. There’s a lot of waiting around. When you’re young, you feel invincible and you think you’re going to have exciting and dramatic experiences, but you don’t think about the toll it takes.
I always tell young journalists that the check will come. And it always does. There are consequences, and that’s fine as long as you’re prepared for it, and you’re proactively engaging in self-care and being self-aware. If you want to do it, there’s no better job in the world. You have to stick with it, and nobody’s going to hand it to you on a plate. It’s a really tough job to get into, but it’s wonderful — the best job there is.
How do you close that vein when you return home?
It’s always hard adjusting to normalcy. It’s confusing for the body and the heart. I have a lot of guilt. Why do I get to leave when others don’t? There’s the randomness of privilege, the grotesque injustice of the world, and I think there’s a temptation to kind of punish yourself and cut yourself off from things that are nourishing and healthy and good and to want to go back immediately.
As you get more experience, you realize that if you want to do this for the long run, you need to be able to embrace things that are good for you, whether that’s love, family, dancing, big nature, therapy — everyone has their own form of self-care, but it’s really important. You’re never going to be fully able to stop the crash. And it’s always a crash when you get back, because you’ve been running on empty, not sleeping enough, you’ve usually been through a lot of intense experiences, so there’s always going to be this precipitous drop when all that energy, adrenaline, exhaustion and trauma you might have witnessed suddenly hits. There’s no way of getting around that except to prepare a big mattress to soften the landing, surround yourself with people you love and make sure you are good, kind and generous to yourself.
Talk a bit about the difference between the way the U.S. sees itself and the way the rest of the world sees us.
Often, Americans don’t have a full sense of the impact U.S. foreign policy has on the world, in ways both positive and negative. That’s a big part of what we’re doing as journalists, not just telling the stories of what’s happening in these places and how people are affected, but also trying to bring Americans a different perspective on how their actions are felt globally.
So then, as a former Fox journalist, is it hard when you’re in a war zone and you hear the kind of editorializing that asks, for example, why should we get involved in Ukraine?
There are a lot of tremendous journalists at Fox. My good friend and former colleague, Pierre Zakrzewski, was a gifted cameraman there who was killed in Kiev in March. And I’m also aware there’s a lot of opinion, some of which can appear to undermine the efforts of all of us as journalists, but more important, the experiences and traumas Ukrainians have been going through. I try not to focus on that and to focus on the job. I can’t do anything to change what Tucker Carlson says on his show, but I can do my work to the best of my ability to ensure Americans get good, solid information about what’s happening in the world.
What’s the story you want to tell with your reporting?
The thread running through every conflict and crisis I’ve covered is our shared humanity. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, what god you pray to. People are people, and we can’t lose sight of that. The other part of the job is to continue to hold those in power accountable, by investigating war crimes, holding interviews, confronting them. There are many ways to push for accountability, and it’s a vital component of what we do.
Do you worry about disinformation campaigns?
Misinformation is everywhere, proliferating every day. We don’t have to like it, but we can’t wish or complain it away. It’s a moment where it’s incumbent upon us to strive harder, be better, be transparent, win the trust of viewers and readers and do good work that underscores why having a free press committed to facts and journalistic ethics is the cornerstone of any thriving democracy.
Wendy Rosenfield is a Philadelphia-based journalist, editor, suburban farmer and very slow marathoner. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.
Feature photo courtesy of CNN.