More Things Considered: Kosovo, September 11, and Responsible Reporting. (Interview)

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Melissa Block is host of National Public Radio's (NPR) All Things Considered. She has worked for NPR since 1985 and held various positions including director, producer, editor, and reporter. In addition to covering such notable domestic stories as the 2000 US presidential election and the World Trade Center attacks, she has also done pieces focusing on aspects of New York City life, including trips through Manhattan, rides on the subway, and strike calls in major league baseball. Ms. Block has also reported on international events such as the crash of TWA flight 800, UN peacekeeping in Angola, and the conflict in Kosovo. Herworkon rape as a weapon of war won NPR's Overseas Press Club Award.

HARVARD INTERNATIONAL REVIEW:

There was a lot of media attention given to the conflict in Kosovo, some of which focused on military strategy, some on leaders and prominent figures in the Balkans, and some on human interest stories in the region. What was your role in Kosovo?

I was part of an NPR team that was sent to Macedonia in June 1999. The original story assignment was to cover the refugee crisis--there were hundreds of thousands of refugees who had fled from Kosovo into Macedonia earlier that spring and later that winter. They had been there for months, and reporters were being cycled in and out to cover the story.

As luck would have it, almost immediately after I arrived, the Serbian parliament signed a peace agreement, and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to it. What had been a refugee story was turning into something very different. The agreement meant that eventually the bombing campaign would end, troops would go in, and the refugees would be returning home. The refugees in the camps were warned not to go home because it was not yet safe, but they began packing their tents on their own. There was a massive exodus back into Kosovo. My stories started in the camps talking to refugees about their reaction to this peace agreement and listening to stories about the abuse that they suffered at the hands of Serbian police and soldiers. The stories became Kosovo stories. I followed a young man and his uncle to their village as they surveyed what was left of their home and were reunited with family members. I ultimately went to Pristina, Kosovo, and spent the rest of my stay doing stories about the regeneration o f the capital and the use of rape as a devastating weapon of war.

How well do you feel the situation in Kosovo was reported by the US media? Was there a disconnect between the situation on the ground and how it was perceived in the United States?

Obviously there was far less reporting before the troops went in; there was a bit of a vacuum during the whole crisis inside the country. There were some reporters who stayed at the onset of the conflict, but many who did not. I think for some readers there was a lack of information until refugees started pouring out and telling their stories, and then the stories were coming from the camps. I think those stories were reported extremely well, and a lot was learned in a short amount of time. Once NATO forces entered the country and reporters went with them, much more information was gleaned. There was a huge opening up, and the full extent of what had happened there became widely known.

Was there any observable agenda behind the way stories were reported in Kosovo, or was there any particular goal on the part of the media?

This was a fairly one-sided conflict. The aggression was by Serbs predominantly, directed at ethnic Albanians, so that fact was reported accurately. I do not think it reflects a bias--it reflects an accurate understanding of what was happening on the ground. It was not a conventional war; this was a tremendous aggression by one party against a minority within Yugoslavia. That, I think, was accurately reported.

Were there any particular stories from the conflict that made a strong impression on you? …