Risking Their Lives to Report

Alumni Yves Colon, Lara Jakes and Alonso Soto Use Their School of Journalism Training to Cover International Tragedies

By Libbi Gordon
Strategic Communication Student

"The other night there was a major attack by Islamic militants on a Catholic church three blocks from our house. We could hear the gunfight from our newsroom, felt the car bomb shake the building and saw the black smoke plume over the attack site. My first instinct was to throw on my abaya and rush over there to get a sense of the damage. Our security guards, however, wanted me to wait until it was all over and ambulances had cleared the scene." Lara Jakes, Baghdad

For Lara Jakes, BJ '95, the balance between safety and reporting breaking news is a constant challenge.

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Some journalists are not willing to sit in the newsroom and wait for information. Breaking news, danger, high emotion and crises are just a few of the risks included in their job descriptions.

As a correspondent for the Associated Press, Jakes is currently on a two-year assignment in Baghdad. After five years of writing about U.S. counterterrorism policy in Washington, D.C., Jakes was eager to witness the situations she had been covering.

Lara Jakes with U.S. Army Col. Walt Piatt
Feb. 28, 2009: Lara Jakes, BJ '95, takes notes while U.S. Army Col. Walt Piatt, commander of the 3 BCT/25th ID, and his interpreter talk to Bedouin sheiks from the al-Shamari tribe about building schools and paying Sons of Iraq checkpoint guards in al-Dawr, outside of Tikrit.
Lara Jakes Interviews Gen. Ray Odierno
March 10, 2009: Jakes interviews Gen. Ray Odierno, top U.S. military commander in Iraq, at the presidential palace at Base Camp Victory in Baghdad.
Lara Jakes in a Blackhawk Helicopter
March 16, 2009: Jakes enjoys a ride in a Blackhawk helicopter en route to Camp Bucca on the Kuwaiti border.
Lara Jakes at the AP Baghdad Desk
April 10, 2010: Jakes hard at work in the AP Baghdad bureau.
Lara Jakes Interviews a Sunni Sheik
April 2010: A Sunni sheik in charge of the local Sahwa militia in Youssifiyah, Iraq, listens to translation of a question during an interview with Jakes. The Sahwa, otherwise known as "Awakening Councils" or "Sons of Iraq," are the government-backed militia made up of former insurgents who sided with the U.S. and fought against al-Qaida in one of the turning points of the Iraq war. Photo: AP Photo/Karim Kadim
Lara Jakes with an Iraqi Army Soldier
July 2010: Jakes chats with an Iraqi Army soldier who is learning to operate M1 Abrams tanks at the Iraqi military training grounds at Besmaya, Iraq.
Lara Jakes with Iraqi Children
Aug. 11, 2010: Jakes with Iraqi children at a U.S.-Iraqi federal police humanitarian food drop in Baghdad. Photos (unless otherwise noted): Lara Jakes/AP Photo.

"It's just another part of the reporting process: You have to go see what the place looks and feels and smells like and not take all your cues from some guy standing behind a podium spinning it from thousands of miles away," she says. "So when the Baghdad job opened last year, I raised my hand."

Jakes covers a variety of Iraqi political and government issues, such as U.S. military operations, embassies and, broadly, the shape of the country's future and society as it moves out of war and tries to stabilize. In October, she wrote about the WikiLeaks release of Iraq war documents and a bombing in which the U.N. was involved.

On the other side of the globe, Alonso Soto, BJ '05, and Yves Colon, MA '90, covered crisis situations in Central and South America.

After the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, most journalists sent reports of the aftermath to the rest of the world. Colon, however, reported directly to the Haitians about how to remain safe.

Colon and a colleague crossed the border from the Dominican Republic one week after the earthquake to start a humanitarian news program. They produced daily radio broadcasts to keep Haitians informed during the aftermath of the earthquake. Because of low literacy rates, radio is the primary source of news and information for many Haitians.

Several journalists from around the world joined Colon in Haiti to support the project. He also brought on Haitians - some with journalism experience, others without - to prepare broadcasts. Colon trained those with no journalistic skills in how to gather life-saving information, such as food distribution facts, and showed them how to broadcast vital messages, such as where lost family members could be located.

"What I found out is that people in crisis need different information to help them get out of where they are," he says. "We would tell people, 'This is where the water is. Be patient.' People really need to hear that. It's news you can use."

The reporters soon gained the trust of Haitians waiting to hear where they could receive medical attention and shelter, and the locals would approach Colon asking for more advice. The team worked around the clock and lived in their makeshift broadcast studios constructed of cardboard and tents.

Similarly, a fair amount of Jakes' job includes training Iraqi staff to meet U.S. standards of journalism.

"It has been helpful to reach back to my J-School days for lessons to pass along," she says. "Everything from making sure we have two sources when having to quote officials anonymously, and why that is important, to reminding them that we, as journalists (suhafeen), have a right and an obligation to be government watchdogs and ask the hard questions."

In return, Jakes has gained invaluable information and a new perspective from the Iraqis.

"They teach me how lucky we are in the American and Western media to have a free press as a protected bedrock of our society," she says. "This is new for them, and it is humbling to be reminded of it so often."

Alonso Soto, BJ '05 Alonso Soto, BJ '05

Soto, a Reuters correspondent, also found it humbling when he survived the Chilean earthquake in February.

"The quake in Chile was the scariest moment so far," he says. "I was very vulnerable in my 15th-floor apartment holding onto the door frame and praying for the building not to collapse."

Luckily, Soto was able to hang on and quickly phoned his editors in Washington. Reuters was first to break the story, with Soto reporting live as it happened.

In Chile, Reuters has two international service reporters, Soto and the bureau chief, as well as two reporters in the Spanish service. They cover everything from strikes to airline mergers, the peso currency surge and central bank rate decisions.

"Working under stressful situations like the quake, the Chilean miners rescue and mining strikes can take a lot out of you," Soto says. "It's been exciting but tiring at the same time."

Excitement and danger are no strangers to Jakes, either. Although she frequently hears gunfire and bombings outside of the compound, she feels safe. Baghdad is the most heavily fortified bureau in the AP. Jakes and two other female American journalists live behind blast walls and barbed wire. They cannot leave the compound without security guards.

The rewarding moments, however, more than make up for the harrowing ones. Jakes flew in an open-air Blackhawk along the Iranian border, she is learning the language and dances of Arabic culture and she has been honored with tables of food in the homes of sheiks she interviewed.

"The latter is just one example of the completely unexpected but overwhelming generosity and kindness I have encountered among most Iraqis," she says. "I feel very, very lucky to have been welcomed so warmly here by so many people."

There are many components to crisis situations. Different players include government officials, police, military and survivors, Soto says. The Missouri School of Journalism Washington Program prepared him to cover the complexity of these situations.

"It was good training ground to know how government, economics and society play into crisis situations," he says. "It makes you more aware of key elements to the story that improve your reporting and the quality and depth of your articles."

Yves Colon at a Tent City
Yves Colon, MA '90, stands in front of a tent city that developed on a soccer field behind St. Therese Church in Petion Ville, Haiti. Photo: Yves Colon.

At the same time, though there are similarities between domestic reporting and crisis reporting, Colon highlights a key difference: delivery. Delivering information without emotion is a difficult challenge.

"Emotions were very strong, and it was hard for me," Colon says of his time in Haiti. "We feel for people. We are human beings - not just cold machines."

Soto also struggles with his emotions.

"When speaking with quake survivors, it was hard not to get personally attached to their stories," Soto says. "I try to get a bit of a distance so I don't get too drawn into it."

Fortunately, with a background of ethical knowledge, Soto is able to overcome the challenge.

"You have to be fair and balanced and, most of all, accurate," Soto says. "It is easy - and tempting - to embellish your stories by tinkering with quotes or exaggerating the facts. That's when you need to remember George Kennedy's ethics class and keep the facts straight."

Jakes also continues to benefit from the Missouri Method.

"I remember coming back to the Missourian newsroom on deadline late one night after a city council meeting and the night news editor telling me to 'Just vomit out the information,'" Jakes says. "I have since passed that on to my Iraqi colleagues, especially when writing an urgent series about a bombing or an election, and I need to know the latest casualty count or vote tally fast."


Yves Colon
The Haiti earthquake coverage was not Colon's first experience with crisis reporting. While working for the Associated Press, Colon covered the Caribbean and reported from San Salvador during the 2001 earthquake. He also worked for the Miami Herald to cover immigration and police, which he also considers crisis reporting. Currently, Colon teaches at the University of Miami.

Lara Jakes
Jakes began working for the AP in 2002. Previously, she reported for Hearst Newspapers and the Times Union newspaper of Albany, N.Y., as a political writer. Jakes was on an AP reporting team that won first place awards from the Scripps Howard National Journalism Foundation and the Associated Press Managing Editors Association for coverage of the 2009 Fort Hood shootings.

Alonso Soto
In addition to the Chilean earthquake, Soto covered the 2008 volcano eruption in Ecuador. The Nicaragua native has been a Reuters Latin America correspondent for nearly five years.