Dispatches from The Hot Zone

In the middle of his one-year tour of global conflict areas, Kevin Sites makes a stop in Israel.

sudan feat 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
sudan feat 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
'He was struck by her beauty, and by the fact that there was not a visible wound on her entire body - not a single mark. He told her everything was going to be okay, but he knew it was a lie, even before he opened her chest cavity in surgery. Her lungs had exploded and the compressed air that was in them had decimated other organs. Within five minutes Shiri Nagari was dead." And that's how Kevin Sites drew his millions of readers into the story of his meeting with Avi Rivkind, the head of the surgery and trauma units at Hadassah Medical Center, and the death of a suicide bomber's victim whom he tried to save. It was one of several interviews that Sites conducted during the trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority that he has just wrapped up, as part of his one-year mission to cover the world's top areas of conflict. The ambitious project puts Sites in a league of his own. On the road since September, Sites is serving as Yahoo! News's first news correspondent in a feature called "The Hot Zone." Armed with a cornucopia of technological gadgets, Sites provides written reports, video coverage and photographic essays in conveying a human narrative behind each country he visits. His recent coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - he interviewed Rivkind, along with other Israeli and Palestinian doctors, victims of violence, journalists and artists - provided insight into the development of journalism and a fresh perspective on a region that regularly makes international headlines. "The Hot Zone" placed Sites in Israel following Hamas's victory in the Palestinian Legislative elections, and yet his coverage did not focus on Hamas members. Instead, he chose to speak with bombing victims from each side, doctors at a Jerusalem and Gaza hospital, journalists and everyday people. He interspersed commentary on the hardships of daily life in Gaza with the blase cafe society and surfing culture of the Tel Aviv coast. "It was about finding parallel lives on both sides of the conflict, Israeli and Palestinian, showcasing those people and introducing them to our viewership." The form of reporting he provides enables Sites to better tell the story of the people plagued by the situation and the lingering effects of the conflict, he says. "We want to know what are the elements of the conflict and certainly Hamas's election win is a part of that, what's happening to Sharon is a part of that, but not exclusively," he says. Reader responses to his reports from this region have soared, with each side claiming misrepresentation or that what was "really going on" did not receive appropriate coverage. His reporting from Israel "reaffirmed how hot the conflict in Israel really is... the people are so angry at each other on so many different levels, the history goes back so deeply, that in a lot of ways, unfortunately I am not too optimistic about it. I just found the hatred so intense on both sides." For one of his reports, Sites visited a Gaza morgue after the targeted assassination of two Palestinians. He was taken to see the bodies which were completely mutilated. The experience revived images of what he had seen in a mosque in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004. He recalled hearing in the Israeli media reports that the two men were killed by a missile fired at the vehicle they were riding in, but Sites says only snipers cause those kinds of wounds. "I couldn't help but think that here, just like in Falluja, someone doesn't want to expose how these people are killed." In such cases, he feels it strange that many Israelis are frustrated that their country has been colored only by the conflict. "A lot of people in Israel are unaware of what is going on," he says, "if they don't live near Gaza with the shelling." PRIOR TO "The Hot Zone," Sites achieved international recognition as a war correspondent with NBC when in 2004, while embedded with the US military in Falluja, he videotaped a marine shooting a wounded Iraqi insurgent at a local mosque. (The release of the footage elicited a cacophony of mixed responses; Sites was both lauded for his attempt to "reveal the harsh realities of war" and criticized as a "national traitor.") Robert Padavik, Sites's producer on the "The Hot Zone," says the idea for the project rose largely out of Kevin's frustration with a 90-second air spot which could not sufficiently address the complexity of the mosque incident he witnessed. Having founded a personal on-line blog, Sites began to grasp the power of Internet journalism as the most apt medium through which he could convey the events of a region. Sites says Yahoo! quickly accepted the idea of a multidimensional news coverage with a "behind the headlines perspective," and have allowed him complete editorial autonomy both in selecting the stories he covers and the regions he visits. His mission statement pronounces the aim to convey "a clear idea of the combatants, victims, causes and costs of each of these struggles and their global impact," while his unique sense of solo journalism clutches a transparency through which he seeks to expose his audience to both the successes and shortcomings of his newsgathering. Sites says the coverage he provides is aimed at conveying the larger picture of the conflicts on which he reports. "We do not want to be the first and last word on a particular issue," he explains. "We can only be a part of that information, of the building blocks people have with which to learn about their world... We are not there to break news, we are going to do stories that have impact and meaning but do not directly make headlines." Sites files full text dispatches with photos and video nearly every day. At the end of coverage of a particular area, together with his "mission control team" back in California, he puts together a full report on the region. "In each country Kevin gives a week's worth of coverage or more, and when you add all that up you get a really powerful look at an issue. We are covering the effects of global conflict in a one year story; taken together it's a pretty powerful round of coverage that you would not see anywhere else," Padavik explains. NEARLY FOUR months ago, "The Hot Zone" began its coverage in Africa - adhering ascetically to a philosophy of reporting untold stories, and baptizing the project in perhaps the most underreported of regions. "When I reached Africa and saw the starving children all around me, I didn't know what to do. At some point I just realized the need to write a piece that explains to the reader why it was so important. Sometimes the suffering is so great that the reader is paralyzed. They don't know what to do so they don't do anything, but sometimes you just become a better person by virtue of the knowledge you gain/have. "It is really important to show the persons behind the suffering. To see that within all this suffering and in spite of it, these people find reason to live, they find happiness and moments of laughter... I have to show them and the world the hope," declared Sites. Iran fascinated, Sites said, and the stories he covered shattered many of the personal stereotypes with which he entered the Middle East. While delving into the country's decision to resume its nuclear production through interviews with government ministers, Sites also explored the country's developing drug problem and rise in AIDS victims. The amalgam of coverage he provided enabled him to frame the current events in Iran in a much larger sense and provided a three-dimensional view to a region he claims suffers from very flat international coverage. It was in Iran that "The Hot Zone" peaked, with nearly two million viewers logging on each week. While on average their coverage receives between 750,000 and one million hits each week, Padavik says the project has attracted "a strong intellectual base of loyal readers," most of whom hail from New York City and Washington D.C. What the team claims as a particular allure of the site is that the audience does not have to come "completely briefed on a region to get something out of the stories... in fact, our feeling is that you are probably not coming completely briefed," Padavik added. Sites's reports feature a limited amount of violence - "we did not report a lot of gore," he said. "Regardless of the conflict at the time, the human narratives always evoke the larger picture, which is what we are after." He claims the perception of conflict has been completely skewed by mainstream media. "Combat is really only a small portion of every even hot conflict; armies are not raging on battlefields anymore - its small-scale unconventional fighting which is going on, roadside bombs like what happen in Falluja." As such, their coverage focuses on the peripheries of conflict: how the people are affected, whether they are non-combatants or the actual fighters, and the life they return to when they go home or back to the base. "What are the actual issues that are involved that are peripheral to the actual fighting," he explains. SITES RECALLS being first turned on to the journalism world at the age of 15, when in his hometown of Geneva, Ohio, he landed a job as a photographer for his local paper. He drew early inspiration from the likes of W. Eugene Smith, the American photojournalist whose coverage during the Korean War inspired him to further explore the field. After receiving his undergraduate degree in communications, he worked on Gary Hart's 1984 and '88 political campaigns, returning to journalism studies for his masters. Sites claims "The Hot Zone" offers an alternative to a public that has become increasingly disenchanted with American and international media. "The networks have done a horrendous job in reporting just the crises, running off to the tsunami when that happens, doing the body count in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not going beyond that," he says. Sites positions "The Hot Zone" not in competition with the headline news services, but as symbiotically amplifying each other. When American network news channels cut back on their international coverage, "the feeling was that the American people are not interested in international coverage. I think they are, I think they are interested in the world, I just think its been done in such a dry and uninteresting way that we have only covered the main events of the crises... when reporting goes from crisis to crisis you tend to turn off." Sites says he hopes the direction in which he is taking reporting will help the public develop an affinity for other countries. The change affected by the Internet has rendered reporting much more prevalent, allowing people to communicate far beyond their base of family and friends and spiking the range and pace with which information is spread. "There is a democratization of the communication process which has happened with these technological shifts," he states. But Sites claims this prevalence of reporting is not without significant drawbacks, as a great deal of the information reported is hearsay - erroneous and comprised of rumors which spread like wildfire over the Internet. "People tend to be very vitriolic in responding to stories," he asserts, "which can be a self-correcting mechanism but can also be a way to dampen the voices of reason and dialogue." Halfway through his journey, Sites says he is pleased with the achievement of "The Hot Zone," and feels that one of the most significant contributions which the project has rendered is perhaps the development of a new plane on which journalistic work is enabled: Through the viewer responses, Sites has stirred dialogue among individuals who raise further information and offer more insightful questions than people whose lives are not directly immersed in the events.