On War’s Centrifugality: Paul Watson

War correspondent Paul Watson has been reckless, masochistic even, in his relentless pursuit of “truth”. In his memoirs, Where War Lives, he states how reporters “are supposed to be tough-skinned, inured to the madness that surrounds them”, and that “journalists are condemned to watch, listen and report”[1]. Yet the terrible events he has witnessed over the years have affected Watson. He has been haunted by the spectre of Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland since he captured a Pulitzer prize-winning photo of Cleveland’s corpse being beaten by a Somali mob in October 1993. The guilt he later felt over this “desecration”[2] of Cleveland’s body propelled him into other war zones. Whilst fighting post-traumatic stress disorder, he has continually put himself in harm’s way. He has hidden from Interahamwe in Rwanda; been attacked by an Iraqi mob; been targeted by mortar attack in Kosovo. This paper, using examples of Watson’s work, shall look at some central themes that pertain to war journalism: objectivity, jingoism, ethics and the psychological impacts of reporting from war zones.

Inspired by media coverage of the Vietnam War, Watson undertook an undergraduate degree in Journalism at Carleton University, Ottawa. This was followed by a Masters degree at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York. After graduating in 1987, he worked at the Toronto Star as a city reporter. However, Watson was more interested in foreign affairs, so much so that he travelled independently to war zones like Eritrea (1989), Angola (1990) and Somalia (1992). He freelanced the resulting photos and articles to the Star. After covering the Gulf War (1991), he was promoted to Africa Bureau Chief in 1992. Based in South Africa, he covered the conflicts in Somalia (1993) and Rwanda (1994). Watson left the Star for the LA Times and covered Yugoslavia (1998-2001), before becoming the South Asia Chief in 2001. After 9/11, Watson reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Iraq. He recently returned to the Star on the ‘Arctic-Aboriginal’ beat.

Watson has stressed his quest for truth in his work. War correspondent Charles Lynch criticized the role that journalists took in World War II.  “We were a propaganda arm of the government…we were cheerleaders”[3], he recalled. Watson agreed, adding “loyalty is to something much bigger [than blind allegiance to any one side in a war]: whatever truth I can grasp as others work just as hard to hide it”[4]. This trait is evident in Watson’s work as he fought UN and NATO spin in places like Somalia and Kosovo.

On 14th June 1993, Watson submitted two articles to the Star. Both reported how Pakistani soldiers, representing the UN mission, had opened fire on protesters in Mogadishu, Somalia. These two articles highlight three issues surrounding journalism and conflict.

First, there is the belief that a journalist be objective, a passive observer, relaying what he witnesses in battle. One of Watson’s articles on 14th June openly criticizes the UN attack on a civilian crowd[5]. He contradicts the official U.N. investigation that stated shots were fired from the crowd first[6], stating that he had not heard any shots and “I didn’t hear any order to disperse or warning shots…either”. Furthermore, Watson had the wherewithal to record the attack and wrote how “for a split-second, the shooting stops and you can hear the sound of children crying, people…shouting ‘Stop! Stop!’ in Somali…and the shooting starts up again”. He feels responsible to report what he witnesses no matter how unpalatable. Watson explains in his memoirs that he took his infamous photo of Cleveland’s body in October 1993 just so that “the Pentagon couldn’t brush me off with denials again”[7]. Watson was equally critical of the U.N. in future reports that not only backtracked on their previous statements of events[8], but which regarded women and children as combatants “whether they shouldered a weapon at that moment or not”[9]. Remarkably, Watson manages to observe tragic events without hysteria, using simple statements of fact such as “the top of his head [was] sliced off like an egg shell”[10].

This article illustrates a second issue surrounding war journalism: the relationship between the media and the military. This relationship has always been fragile, since the first coverage of the Crimean War to the recent war in Afghanistan. Should journalists ally themselves with a cause as they did in World War II, or should they inform their readers about the realities of conflict? Watson prioritizes the need for veracity over jingoistic partisanship. Watson’s aforementioned account portrays the “good guy”, the U.N., in a negative light. This is the quandary of a war correspondent – to weigh the need for truth against being labeled a ‘traitor’. Corporal Greg Smith referred to the media as “a well-trained enemy force”[11]. He also accused Watson’s work of demoralizing U.S. troops. However, according to Stuart Allen and Barbie Zelizer, the antithetic combination of “flag-waving patriotism” and journalism simply cannot coexist[12].

Third, these two articles, both by Watson and both published on 14th June 1993, highlight another dilemma in war journalism: hard news versus sensationalist reportage. The article referenced above[13] is vitriolic in its attack on the U.N., filled with images of children whose brains cover the street, of dead women and eviscerated men. This piece was published on page A1 of the Star. Watson’s less vivid account of the same event was published on page A14[14]. This questions the responsibility of the media. On the one hand, there is the obligation to deliver hard, impartial news and on the other, the need to sell newspapers. The placement of Watson’s more graphic and controversial story on the Star’s front page sadly supports the old adage that “if it bleeds, it leads”.

Watson’s work illustrates how a war journalist’s work is fraught with ethical challenges. To report objectively, irrespective of whatever brutality is witnessed. To fulfill an obligation to readers, without sensationalizing. To report the truth, without antagonizing the military. He wrote that his “professional code demands that he not act, that he strictly maintain an objective distance”[15]. However, war by nature is centrifugal, and production of neutral, emotionless journalism is hard to achieve. Watson arguably managed it by filtering his cathartic output but has, according to his memoirs, paid a psychological price.


[1] Watson, Paul. Where War Lives. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007: 187.

[2] NPR podcast. Journalist Paul Watson on Witnessing War, 27th August 2007 at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=13970206.

[3] Knightley, Phillip. The First Casualty. New York and London: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1975: 333.

[4] Watson, Paul. Where War Lives. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007: 293.

[5] Watson, Paul. “U.N. bullets cut down a little boy. Star report watches as peacekeepers open fire on crowd” in the Toronto Star, 14th June 1993.

[6] Watson, Paul. “Soldiers claim self-defence Somalis fired first Pakistani general says” in the Toronto Star, 14th June 1993.

[7] Watson, Paul. Where War Lives. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007: 34.

[8] Watson, Paul. “Up to 100 die as U.N. forces fire on crowd in Mogadishu” in the Toronto Star, 10th September 1993.

[9] Watson, Paul. “Family says boy, 14, hit by U.N. bullets as he read Koran” in the Toronto Star, 11th September 1993.

[10] Watson, Paul. “U.N. bullets cut down a little boy. Star report watches as peacekeepers open fire on crowd” in the Toronto Star, 14th June 1993.

[11] Watson, Paul. Where War Lives. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007: 359.

[12] Allen, Stuart and Zelizer, Barbie. “Rules of Engagement: Journalism and War” in Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime. New York: Routledge, 2004: 10.

[13] Watson, Paul. “U.N. bullets cut down a little boy. Star report watches as peacekeepers open fire on crowd” in the Toronto Star, 14th June 1993.

[14] Watson, Paul. “Soldiers claim self-defence Somalis fired first Pakistani general says” in the Toronto Star, 14th June 1993.

[15] Watson, Paul. Where War Lives. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007: 140.