FishbowlDC Q&A With CNN Senior International Correspondent Clarissa Ward

On the current and future status of reporting abroad.

For CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward, back in Washington to accept the International Center for Journalists’ Excellence in International Reporting award last night, the U.S. elections have not been at the center of her universe. “I exist in this weird bubble. I haven’t really had a chance to take the temperature properly in D.C.”

That bubble in which Ward found herself, while the rest of the country was suckered in by coverage of the presidential elections, was not in some plush European outpost, but in some of the world’s most dangerous and unstable locations, like Mosul, Iraq, and particularly Syria, where she has worked to shape CNN viewers’ knowledge and understanding of the country’s unending civil war, the power vacuum that has resulted, and the multifarious reasons, including by providing social services, that fundamentalist groups like ISIS have been able to capitalize on this.

“I’m working on a documentary at the moment, which is addressing this exact issue,” she told us. “It’s not something you’re necessarily going to be able to get into every single day in your run of the mill news-of-the-day coverage, but I do think that there are quite a few of us who are looking at that issue, looking at the appeal of radicalism, both in the West and in the Middle East.”

FishbowlDC spoke to Ward about the complexities of reporting abroad, and what foreign reporting may look like under the Trump administration.

FBDC: What do you think are the prospects for audiences to tune into international coverage now that the elections are over?

Clarissa Ward: I think that the international news is going to play an increasingly dominant role in the news cycle over the next year, partly because the election is over, but also partly because I think that President-elect Trump is going to be engaging in the international community in different ways and I think that’s going to merit a lot of coverage. I think that people are going to be really interested to see how he goes about dealing with ISIS, how he’s going to go about repairing the relationship with Russia, what that would look like, how he’s going to go about dealing with the enormous, devastating, humanitarian catastrophe that’s going on in Syria right now, how he’s going to be interacting with the U.K. as it goes through its Brexit.

There are so many topical, international issues that are going to be closely watched by the U.S., I think, particularly because it’s going to be so interesting to see what kind of a foreign policy President-elect Donald Trump is going to carve out for himself. Right now, it’s one of those things where I think it’s anybody’s guess. A lot of people have predicted a lot of things and obviously we sort of have to read the tea leaves based on previous comments he’s made on various issues, but to a certain extent I think we’re only really going to see the shaping of his foreign policy as it happens on the ground. There isn’t a reference point, really, because he’s not coming at this from a position of governance or having a political background. It’s going to be a fascinating, fascinating time, I think.

FBDC: What are you going to be focusing on personally in terms of international coverage?

Ward: I’m always focused very closely on Syria, simply because I think it is one of the most devastating conflicts I have ever seen, and the world needs to pay attention because it’s feeding directly into the issues that we’re seeing about the growth of extremism, the growth of ISIS. I’m also watching the fight against ISIS very closely, as it shifts inevitably in the coming months from Mosul, which should be liberated by Iraqi forces in the coming months, to then perhaps the even more difficult battle for Raqqa, which is the ISIS stronghold in Syria, so I will be looking at that very closely.

But also, I lived in Russia twice, and have spent a lot of time there over the years, and have an enormous interest in the country and its people, and I think you’re going to see a lot of interesting developments in Russia’s role in the world and Russia’s relationship with the U.S.

Those would be my top three stories that I plan to be very focused on.

FBDC: From your perspective, looking at how you see and understand Syria and how it’s understood and discussed in the United States, what are some of the biggest disconnects?

Ward: I think it’s really difficult for most people to get their head around just the basic humanity of the situation and the devastation–the number of innocent civilians being massacred and the civilian infrastructure being devastated and decimated, the fact that chemicals have been used, the fact that cluster bombs are being used, that incendiary devices are being used, that bunker buster bombs are being used.

Part of the disconnect is obviously they’re just so far away and it’s hard to relate sometimes, but also because there’s a complexity to it, because we talk about, well, you have the Alawites and the Shi’a and the Sunni, and you have these rebel groups who the U.S. supports and then these rebel groups who aren’t supported, and you have ISIS, who are in a totally different category, and then you have Hezbollah, and you have Iran, so you have all these different actors playing out this massive proxy war, and sometimes I think the geopolitical jargon can be a little alienating to an American audience.

At the same time, whenever I’ve gone into Syria and done these types of stories, the reaction I get is enormous–really, really massive, from ordinary people just tuning in and watching who do not necessarily have a deep interest in Syria, who do not really have a deep knowledge of the country or what’s going on there. I think when you tell stories in a human way it resonates no matter what, but obviously the complexity of the Syrian conflict makes it a tough one to tell that story.

FBDC: Talking about all those pieces can get confusing, but on the other side, there’s this huge oversimplification that happens–the first thing that I can think of is the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” It seems like this very hard line to walk.

Ward: It is hard. But that’s why I feel it’s such a strong calling for me personally because I care a lot about Syria and I think we owe it to the people who are living through this hell there to take a moment and pay attention, and try to understand, and when it comes to the time for people in policy to make decisions, you want them to be making it from the most informed point of view possible, and you want the public, who are judging those policy positions, to be judging them through the prism of actually having some basic knowledge of it.

I think that sometimes we have a tendency to want to make a story go away because it’s too complicated and we don’t know how to shorthand it. We can’t do that. We have an obligation; it’s our job. There’s a lot of really good journalists out there and at the end of the day if you have good storytelling, even the most complicated story can become riveting to an audience who otherwise may have had no interest in it.

FBDC: In a message to the UN, one of the things you have mentioned is that “Islamists are the ones who have stepped in to fill the void.” And I know this is another under-covered thing, the appeal of radical groups from a social service perspective. Is it part of that same problem of getting complex things across? Why isn’t this discussed more?

Ward: I think in general radical Islam, for lack of a better term, is a very loaded and complex issue, and it’s the kind of thing where you want to be choosing your words carefully and explaining things in a way that is conducive to having a deeper and more nuanced understand, rather than a reductive, more Manichean, black and white understanding, which is rarely helpful, to be honest.

A lot of my work has focused on trying to understand radicalism better, and of course the minute you really start to delve into things you realize it’s not just a clear cut case of ‘oh, anyone who’s attracted to this thing is evil and anyone who’s not attracted to it is really good.’ You realize that there’s a whole confluence of social and economic and also personal factors that are fascinating to explore and try to better understand. But they’re deep and they require the time to really have a deeper dive into it. I’m fortunate at CNN. They have given me the airtime and space.

In Syria it’s a classic case of, why was ISIS able to take so much territory and gain so much support? And a huge part of that is because they were the only act in town, basically, who were able to fill the void, who were able to provide some modicum of security, through however brutal and horrific message they did that. And, by the way, they continue to be able to do that, not just ISIS but other extremist groups operating on the ground who are still exploiting the fact that there aren’t other actors trying to do the same thing and step in.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.