For CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, covering Malaysia Airlines flight 17 — a passenger jet shot down by a surface-to-air missile in a conflict zone near the Ukraine/Russia border — was a unique experience in his seasoned journalism career.
“We’ve covered different types of conflict and war and we’ve covered disasters like this, plane crashes, but never together. I know they’ve happened before, [but] in recent history, we just haven’t had to deal with anything like this. And I think the compounding effect of the humanity takes you by surprise because you have to deal with so many different things at once,” he tells TVNewser.
In addition to the logistical challenges of reporting from the unstable region, an active conflict zone controlled by militants who can be hostile to Americans, Cuomo says one of the most difficult tasks of his time in eastern Ukraine was fighting the instinct to “go out there and just cover [the bodies] and try to protect them, because it was clear that nobody was going to do it.”
“The first thing I did when I got there, and I saw what was going on: I said a prayer for the dead. And it’s not because I’m particularly religious, because I’m not,” Cuomo says. “It’s that I just knew they were not being cared for, and in fact quite the opposite was true, they were being left there on purpose.”
The “horror” of what he saw fueled his desire to focus his coverage on the victims, which he felt were “dangerously” neglected amid the political ramifications of the plane crash. That emotion also fed his interviews, some of which became contentious as a result.
“When I went head-to-head with the self-appointed prime minister, everyone was saying, ‘be careful what you say, be careful what you say.’ There were all these Russian guys around him who were seasoned warriors,” Cuomo says. “I couldn’t not ask the questions to him. Not with what he was allowing to be done and not done at that crime scene. I just felt someone had to take care of these people, somebody had to get the message out.”
Covering a story like this, Cuomo intentionally avoids introspection, which he feels can lead to “some dangerous conclusions and places.”
“I try very hard to channel a sense of purpose as opposed to what you feel. For me, instead of it being about what I feel emotionally, it’s about what I feel in terms of my sense of purpose,” he says. “It just intensifies how much I want to promote the cause of whatever’s truthful in the situation, and bring out how they’re being exploited. It ups my intensity, my sense of purpose. If I let myself really absorb what’s going on, I’m not going to be able to function.”
Cuomo says he has a simple way to stay focused when “surrounded by complete and utter devastation and negativity and sadness” — a reminder of why he became a journalist in the first place.
“What I do, and what many of us do, is you use your mental images and what you carry with you as a reminder of why you do it, what life really is for you when it’s at its best,” he says. “For me, it’s as simple as the screensaver on my phone of my wife and kids and our dog.”
“That’s how I get through it, that’s how I deal with it,” Cuomo continues. “Because I can’t be detached. It’s not who I am. I don’t do this job to be detached. I do it because I’m overwhelming attached to the people that we’re doing it for. I think that’s what the job’s all about.”