Conned in Kosovo: a CBC reporter's dilemma

How to respond when a tale of atrocity wasn't true?

When Nancy Durham first discovered that she had been lied to, her reaction was "the most incredible sinking feeling."

Ms. Durham, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television reporter, had returned to Kosovo in June of this year, to do a follow-up piece on an 18-year-old girl who had joined the Kosovo Liberation Army after her young sister had been killed by Serbs. The girl's story had been part of a larger piece that aired on the CBC in January, to much critical praise. Yet as Durham stood in the doorway of the family's home in Skenderaj, the sister who was supposed to have been killed was standing there, alive and well.

Rather than trying to excuse or brush off the lie, or have the CBC do a simple correction, Durham decided to do a full story - not only about the girl who told it, but what it said about how news is reported from a war zone.

The result is a 16-minute report: "The Truth About Rajmonda: A KLA Soldier Lies for the Cause." It's being hailed by many media observers in Canada as a breakthrough piece that should serve as a model for other news organizations.

Durham's involvement with Rajmonda Rreci began in September 1998 while she was filming a piece on an Albanian doctor. Rajmonda, a patient, told Durham on camera that she was joining the KLA to avenge the death of her six-year old sister. Durham (who works as a one-woman reporting "team") returned in December 1998 and tracked down Ms. Rreci. During that interview, Rreci said that her sister was fortunate to die for Kosovo, and that she would do the same.

Then in June, almost as soon as NATO-led peacekeeping troops went into the region, Durham went back. It was during this trip she learned that Rreci had lied. When confronted, she told Durham that she had actually thought her sister was dead, but wasn't sure, and that doctors in the hospital had encouraged her to tell the story because other girls had lost sisters to the Serbs.

"My first thoughts were 'This is a disaster,' " says Durham. "I had this passion for the people in the story. I felt really depressed. If this happens to me, I thought, and I go back again, and again, and again, how many other journalists has this happened to?"

Durham returned to her home in Oxford, England, and thought about what she wanted to do. And although some media critics have said that the CBC pushed her to go back to do the report, Durham says this is untrue. She says she needed to go back, find Rajmonda Rreci again, and this time tell the true story.

It turned out that most of what the teenager had said wasn't true. She had actually been a member of the KLA before she went to the hospital and had known all along that her sister was alive. But Rreci continued to stress that other Kosovar girls had lost their sisters, and why shouldn't she do it for them? Ultimately, Rreci did admit that what she said was just KLA propaganda.

For Steve Kimber, director of the school of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, what Durham and the CBC did was critical. "It's very important to make journalism more transparent to the public. Particularly with a story that deals with 'heartstrings' like this one. And if it's not true, to give it just as much time as the story you had broadcast earlier."

John Allemang, media critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, says that while he feels the CBC has "overreacted," he's proud of the broadcaster for airing Durham's report. "But the question is, are they applying it across the board? There are lots of other situations where we're aware that we're not being told the complete truth. Is the CBC going to now start going back to check on other stories? The truth is, that it's hard for the media to check up on these things."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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