When Youth Radio reporters in Oakland, CA, spoke with their friends returning home from Iraq, they realized that the public wasn't hearing the perspectives of these young soldiers.
So they produced a series, Reflections on Return. In this piece, reporter Belia Mayeno Choy talks to Ed Reyes, a Marine who returned from Iraq just after the prison abuse scandal broke at Abu Ghraib.
Belia Mayeno Choy
BEHIND THE SCENES with Belia Mayeno Choy
Many of the soldiers that are fighting in Iraq are very young people. Before producing this series, Reflections on Return, did you feel the perspective of young soldiers was missing from the press?
I definitely wanted to hear more from young soldiers. In the organized armed forces, older people often make decisions for young people on the battlefield. So I think that to cover this war without hearing from those young soldiers firsthand would be incomplete to the point of being irresponsible. On a larger scale, I really believe that young people have a right to tell their own stories. Whether it's about war, school, dating, or criminal justice -- it's very empowering just to be able to speak for yourself instead of being spoken about.
As a young producer yourself, what unique perspectives did you feel you could bring to the series?
Because I am a young producer, certain parts of our interview with the Marines really resonated with me. We had hours of tape, and a team of producers, so there were varying ideas about what we needed to include in the piece. It seemed important for there to be a young producer to help guide our editorial decisions. More importantly, as a young reporter, there were small things that helped me connect with the Marines we interviewed. Like when Ed referenced a bit by the comedian Chris Rock, and he didn't have to explain it because we have a common pop culture idiom. They also had a rather long and graphic conversational tangent about pornography. None of that tape was usable, but I think it was kind of way to test me to see how I would react. And since I'm really used to hearing talk like that from other college guys I know, I passed that "test" and it seemed to make them more willing to share other information. So it felt more like I was just hanging out with them and talking, instead of a formal interview.
Were the soldiers that you interviewed for this series at all hesitant to talk about their experiences? Were they eager?
All three of the Marines we interviewed were eager to share their thoughts and photos. At certain points in the conversation, it seemed like they were enjoying our shock and discomfort at some of the photos and captions on Ed's Web site. But anecdotally, we've found that people in the military are much more reluctant to be interviewed since the Abu-Ghraib prison photos and Fahrenheit 9/11 were released.
What appealed to you about Ed Reyes and his story?
I thought it was really interesting how some of these Marines saw their deployment to Iraq as an exciting adventure -- and that they thought of it that way as a kind of a coping mechanism. Ed kept saying, "I love the war. You gotta love this war." I asked him why. He said that he had to love the war, because if he didn't he would go crazy thinking about what really happened there. The pictures and captions on his Web site [editor’s note: Reyes documented his time in Iraq by taking digital photographs. Many of them are graphic shots of war.] are disturbing in and of themselves, but understanding why he saw the war in Iraq the way he did was equally thought-provoking.
When he addresses the abuse of prisoners, Ed Reyes makes the statement, "I wouldn't do it, but I understand it." That's a controversial statement. What made you decide to include it?
All three of the young men we interviewed feel strongly that civilians can never understand what it's like to be in Iraq. They said that since we don't have that experience, we don't have the entire context to judge the actions of the soldiers at Abu-Ghraib. I don't necessarily agree with that opinion -- but we included it because it's such a key part of their perspective. I did some work in sexual violence prevention for several years, and I noticed a natural coping response after witnessing violence to want to tell ourselves "I could never do that," or, "that would never happen to me." But in reality, "regular" people commit and suffer from acts of violence every day. So I thought it was important to hear him admitting that he could identify with the perpetrators.
What other challenges did you face in telling this story?
There were several challenges in reporting this story. As a youth development organization, we had to make sure that we were accurately portraying the young Marines' opinions and experiences without jeopardizing their careers. This concern was mostly focused on Luis, who was still in the reserves at the time of the interview, and he described some abuses that took place in his unit. It was also challenging to find a balance in terms of the clips we chose, and how I wrote around them. As I said before, I really wanted to represent how Ed seemed desensitized as a way to get through his time in Iraq. But I also didn't want to rationalize his comments, or the contents of his Web site.
What is the most significant thing you learned in doing this reporting?
I got a much better sense of the soldiers as journalists themselves. They are on the ground fighting the battles, and committing some of the war's most atrocious acts, while also capturing its most powerful images. To my knowledge, this is the first war where the soldiers themselves are taking the most prominent photos. Since I've grown up watching digital photography and photo-sharing become more accessible and popular, I think I've kind of taken it for granted. But I got a new understanding of how that technology can really change how Americans see the war.
How did you initially discover Youth Radio, and how long have you been involved in it?
I went through Youth Radio's core training program when I was 16 years old, in 1997. I heard about it from a friend, and filled out an application for fun, because I didn't have anything else to do after school. Once I was in the program, I discovered that I really enjoyed news writing . . . especially the commentaries. I've never had a shortage of opinions, and it was the first time I felt like anyone outside of my family actually cared what I had to say. I've been here on and off since then, and they've played a huge role in my development as a journalist.
Do you plan to stay in radio?
I'm not sure yet if I plan to continue my work in radio after college, but I do plan to have a career involving writing. My love for writing is largely rooted in what I learned through my work in radio. So it will always be with me, regardless of what I'm doing.
Do you have any ideas about how the public radio world might engage younger listeners and producers?
The first element is to have more stories by and about young people. But another really important piece is to produce that content in a way that is youth-accessible. We struggle with that here at Youth Radio because most of our work is broadcast on public radio, which has an older audience base. I did an informal survey with some students here to find out what would compel them to tune in, and they agreed that music would be a big draw. They don't expect NPR to start playing 50 Cent in heavy rotation or something like that, but they would like to see their music creatively incorporated into news stories. One student suggested that maybe stations could play a song about growing up poor, along with a feature about how poverty affects the caliber of public school education. They also wanted to hear more honest and informative conversation about sex and relationships, which is a big issue no matter how old you are.