Anderson Cooper on War Reporting: “The energy is palpable. The molecules in the air are charged.”

Cooper, speaking at Columbia, described his experiences reporting the genocide in Rwanda. One of the lessons the experience taught him, he said, was that “we’re all capable of just about anything. We’re capable of great acts of kindness and compassion. But we’re also capable of great acts of brutality and barbarism. We saw plenty of that in Rwanda.”

Cooper described the atmosphere “You would smell the towns before you got to them,” he said, “because the people were dead, and the bodies were out in the sun.”

“If you do combat reporting a lot,” Cooper said, “there’s a tendency to no longer react to the violence and the horror that you’re seeing.” Cooper described coming up to a grouping of bodies on the side of a road in Rwanda. The bodies, he said, had been lying out in the sun for days, and the fluids had had drained away from them, and they “had basically disintegrated. And the skin of the hands had basically peeled off like a glove.”

Intrigued by the images, Cooper began taking photographs of the scene—“with my personal camera,” he noted—of the various bodies. “It wasn’t for a story,” he said, “it was for my personal interest.”

“I wasn’t really viewing this body as a person,” he said. “I was just viewing it as a body.”

Cooper’s companion on the trip, he said, proceeded to take photographs of Cooper as Cooper took his pictures of the bodies. The companion later sent him the photos, with a note highlighting the dispassion on display in the photos.

“That’s when I realized,” Cooper said. “To keep being a human being, I had to do more than just going to war zones and going from one tragedy to the next.”

Cooper described the downward spiral that can take place in the mind of a war correspondent. “It takes more and more bodies to shock you,” he said. “It takes more and more brutality to make you notice.”

“If you find that happening,” he continued, “you have to stop. Because your job is to see things from a new perspective,” and if a correspondent loses his humanity, he can’t be a good reporter. And you can’t get to the point where one tragedy seems less tragic than another. “There shouldn’t be a sliding scale of sorrow,” Cooper said.

Ultimately, “the people who pretend to be these hard-bitten correspondents shouldn’t be doing it,” Cooper said. “Because if they can’t be affected by the reality of what they see, they have no business being there.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.