Covering Wars and Other Calamities

By Sandy K. Johnson

Peter Copeland covered war zones in a half dozen countries, morphing from an admittedly green rookie in El Salvador to a seasoned war correspondent in his last conflict assignment in Somalia.

“I was always up for parachuting into a dangerous place,” said the longtime reporter for Scripps Howard News Service and former National Press Foundation board member. Copeland wrote it all down in a vivid autobiography, “Finding The News: Adventures Of A Young Reporter.”  He recalled many of his assignments in a video interview with NPF.

Finding The NewsCopeland had been sent to cover Latin America in 1984 and was barely settled when his bosses sent him to El Salvador, then in the midst of a violent civil war. It was an assignment he recalled as scary and intimidating. He found a taxi driver who became his eyes and ears, helping him as he pursued the story from the relatively calm capital into the mountains. He also learned that veteran war correspondents would be helpful even to a newbie.

Some stories Copeland that covered continue today. He reported on illegal immigration by traveling the length of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, talking with people on both sides. The lesson he learned: Walk a few miles in the footsteps of people affected by what you’re covering.

Copeland also reported on the decades-long drug war. “Unfortunately for Mexico, the war is waged there,” he said. He described a colleague being beaten up by a drug lord and then subsequently interviewing the thug, nicknamed “Mophead,” in jail. Mophead’s top complaint? He didn’t like the unflattering photo of him that Scripps Howard was using.

Holidays were often interrupted by breaking news, as happened when Copeland left family behind at Christmas to cover the U.S.’s forcible ouster of Panama dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989. A detail caught his eye: The captain of one unit involved in combat was a woman, which at the time was still officially prohibited. Copeland’s interview with her was a bona fide scoop. But as sometimes happens in Washington, it caught the Pentagon brass off guard and they tried to deny it.

Copeland was deployed to cover the first Gulf War after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. He went into Kuwait with an artillery brigade and had enviable access to military intelligence and movements – as long as he didn’t file until combat ceased, which it did after just one week. Agreeing to that stipulation meant he was “inside of a very important military operation on the move, on the hunt.”

His last conflict coverage was the civil strife in Somalia in the early 1990s. The U.S. military went into Africa to try to get food to starving Somalis after warring tribes destroyed the nation’s infrastructure. Copeland said it was his scariest assignment, partly because there were no identifiable good guys or bad guys in the conflict.

Copeland had plenty of close calls. As he wrote, “I had been shot at, teargassed and chased by thugs, but never got a scratch.” His advice to reporters is to spend time cultivating military officers, who don’t want a reporter to get hurt on their watch; take first aid and security training; and rely on guidance from veteran war reporters and local correspondents. His editors told Copeland, “No story is worth dying for” – sage advice that he repeated when he became a bureau chief.

Copeland also laid out “lessons learned” from his career that comprise a solid checklist for any journalist. (The author’s favorite: “There is no news in the office.”)

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