By Jim Watters
Root of the idea
U-T editors and reporters met with a group of San Diego Chaldeans in August to discuss the paper’s coverage of the community in general and the ISIS crisis in specific.
At that discussion, Chaldeans explained that they have faced challenges long before ISIS was active in Iraq, and the story evolved from there.
Narrowing it down
Starting with a vast topic — the struggles of a minority group in a war-torn country over a period spanning more than a decade — could go several directions: interviewing people here, going to Iraq and finding survivors there, focusing on policy, on solutions, on opinions, on emotions, on facts.
The reporter, Roxana Popescu, and her editor, Jim Watters, focused on the human aspect of the story using interviews here and blogs from the past, because that would take advantage of the resource we have in San Diego: a population with knowledge of Iraq.
We faced several obstacles during the reporting. One was language. No U-T staffer is fluent in Arabic or Aramaic, so we hired a Chaldean translator to look at online materials. A second challenge was gaining access to sources. Institutions like politicians, the media and police are seen as untrustworthy in Iraq. There is also a fear of consequences for speaking up about persecution. To invite people to tell sensitive stories, the reporter reached out to people through sources she had developed during almost two years of covering Chaldeans in East County. A final challenge was time. Developments in Iraq meant the story had to be reported and written in less than a week.
Balancing objective and subjective
The article relied on oral histories — people reporting events they lived through. To balance those accounts with less subjective context, the reporter sought out additional information, to piece together an understanding of the situation of Christians and other minorities in Iraq, the country’s overall security situation, and actions of insurgent groups. These sources were:
• Professors of military history and public health, an Iraqi government worker who was also Chaldean, members of Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni groups to provide other points of view, and local Iraqis who studied Chaldean history without themselves being persecuted.
• Written texts from Iraqi bloggers who were not Chaldean, which helped illustrate what was happening in Iraq from 2003 to the present.
• Notes from a prior interview with a Chaldean priest and scholar of Iraqi history.
• Reports from the U.S. government, nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits and the United Nations.
• Academic texts, including a master’s thesis on Chaldeans in northern Iraq and a university law review article.
The back story: descent into chaos