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Alfonsi and Roth On Covering The Middle East Crisis

(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
How much knowledge do journalists assume on the part of their audiences when putting together stories on the Middle East? We asked Sharyn Alfonsi and Richard Roth, two of the correspondents who have been covering the conflict for CBS News. They responded via email.

"This is a challenge in all we do almost everyday as broadcast journalists anywhere in the world; one difference in THIS region is that there's hardly a word or a phrase that one side or the other doesn't find 'loaded.' And one side's history is another side's propaganda," writes Roth.

He continues: "How much history do I assume our audience knows? Well, last week in Israel I found myself writing of a rocket attack on 'Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee,' then changing that to 'The biblical city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee,' which added just a tiny bit of context that didn't take up much precious airtime - which tends to be the big factor that determines how much history gets into a news story. There's no hard and fast rule. And on a story like this, on-going and incremental, there's an opportunity to share a bit of history in small doses. A contextual or historical fact that might get cut from one script for lack of time gets saved in my notebook - and will go in a later story. No single report is comprehensive. Like the reporter, I think the viewer or listener learns as the story unfolds."

Alfonsi writes that she assumes everyone has a basic knowledge of the story. "That being said - I love it when you can tell a story that you don't need to know any of the background to get it. It just stands alone, a moment in time," she writes.

"We found that the other day," she adds. "We went to a bomb shelter and met a young woman who was living underground for seven days. They didn't have air conditioning or water but she and the other 50 people who were staying there were too afraid to go home for even a second. That day while we were there one man did leave, briefly, to get milk for his son. He was killed by a rocket. I don't think you need a whole lot of history or knowledge of politics to understand a story like that."

We also asked the correspondents what resources are available to them as they tell the story of the conflict.

"I spent the first few days of this story working in Israel, where the Tel Aviv bureau is legendary within CBS News for routinely achieving the impossible with too little time and too few people," writes Roth. "There's always a staffing curve on big stories, which begin with not nearly enough people to do the job, evolve into units that are stretched for sleep and resources but manage to cover the story, and reach points where our bosses suddenly ask: why are so many of you still there?"

"As the Israel coverage was being ramped up, I was shipped out, and ended up in Damascus," he continues. "Here I've been working with a producer, a cameraman and a sound recordist - all CBS News employees. Among us, we have skills in a couple of languages, including Arabic, and came here with some contacts - most of which hadn't been recently used. We've taken on a local person who's helped us negotiate the bureaucracy that needs to be handled here, who's found us a driver and vehicle, who has vast local knowledge and a fabulous phone book of contacts who seem to like and respect him as much as we've come to. He could be called a "fixer," but that wouldn't begin to do justice to all he's doing on this story. Beyond that, our resources are mobile phones, laptop computers, and an arrangement with a local outfit that provides us with a satellite uplink to transmit our stories. We've been very lucky and have had unusual access to some senior officials in a government that doesn't have a reputation for always dealing with great finesse with journalists. Ours is an ideal team size for the 'slice' of the story we've been covering."

Writes Alfonsi: "We have a decent amount of resources here, a bureau in Tel Aviv. I'm working with a wonderful producer, Ashley Velie, who lives in Tel Aviv. She knows the area and how to get things done. She's an unbelievable resource and stays amazingly cool in even the tensest situations. That's a great help. There are also a number of other producers back in Tel Aviv helping out, Hebrew speaking staff, drivers and photographers…but I think the most important resource we have is access. Unlike Baghdad, where you really can't get around and see things for yourself --- here, you can. It's dangerous and the rockets are random but in between the blasts you can talk to people, look around, and find stories."

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