Journalist discusses war on terror coverage, experiences during annual McGill Lecture
Journalist Souad Mekhennet doesn't run from the difficult stories. She runs toward them because they're important to tell.
As the national security desk correspondent at The Washington Post, Mekhennet has spent years covering ISIS and the Taliban. Her reports on conflicts and terrorist attacks in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East also have appeared in The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and NPR. She spoke about those experiences and her book, I Was Told to Come Alone, during the McGill Lecture, "Being a Female Reporter Behind the Lines of Jihad," held Nov. 15 as part of UGA's Signature Lecture series.
"All that we do [as journalists]—the coverage matters. It matters to those who want to build bridges to understand how people think, and it's our job to present both sides," she said. "I believe there is a clash between those who want to build bridges and those who want to divide us."
Mekhennet's interest in journalism began in her early teens when she asked her father if she could watch All the President's Men, the 1976 film about Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's research into Watergate. She went to journalism school in Hamburg from 1999-2001, including a class trip to New York City. After Sept. 11, 2001, she wanted to find out what happened to the pilots who flew the three planes while they studied in Hamburg. She spent time in their neighborhoods researching the radicalization process. She met Peter Finn, who is now her editor at the Washington Post, and that became her first assignment.
"I grew up in a household with my grandmother and parents where we were taught to look at what we have in common as people," she said. "This explains why I decided to do what I'm doing today."
As part of her coverage, Mekhennet met the wife of a firefighter who died during the Sept. 11 attacks. She asked Mekhennet why journalists hadn't reported on potential dangers before the attacks.
"That evening, I decided that, as a journalist, I would go into the world of Jihad and talk to people who were members of terrorist organizations...to explain where the hatred comes from," Mekhennet said. "Why did they join these groups? What was the motivation?"
Throughout her career, she has traveled extensively and interviewed several terrorist organization leaders. Her preparations include everything from hiring appropriate translators to arranging meetings late at night in out-of-the-way locations to studying local female customs, including what parts of herself to cover and what types of perfume are acceptable. Despite all of that preparation, she has encountered danger.
"I have been to war zones, and I have seen people getting killed," she said. "I have faced threats, as well."