Times change, wars change, attitudes toward reporters change, technology changes. But what remains the same is the importance of reporters on the ground, covering a story by talking to people on the streets, and getting a first-hand view of history in the making.

That’s according to Anne Garrels, senior foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, who gave a speech May 21 to Harvard’s Nieman Fellows and the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations at Point Lookout in Northport.

Garrels’ speech took the audience from Central America to Washington, D.C., to the Middle East.

Garrels was sent to El Salvador in the mid-80s. “It was the first time I had been assigned to a hot conflict,” Garrels said. “Up until then I had specialized in the Soviet Union, a very cold war.”

She said reporters didn’t have helmets or flack jackets. They had T-shirts with the words “Don’t shoot, we’re journalists.”

“And amazingly, in those days, that actually kind of helped,” Garrels said. “Now, having something like that on your T-shirt would be an invitation to murder.”

Her time in Central America was an example of on-the-ground reporting leading to a change in the conventional wisdom.

She investigated press gangs by the military, which had been reported in the local news. But she found that the leftist guerrillas had been “press-ganging people even more.”

“That was what was upsetting people the most,” Garrels said. “It was a totally new development. It had not been reported.”

Garrels said she arrived in El Salvador as a “universal skeptic.”

“When I wrote this story about what I had found, which was totally unexpected, I was excoriated by many of my colleagues, who were pretty left-leaning,” Garrels said. “I merely wrote what I had witnessed. And as things turned out, it actually foreshadowed the beginning of fractures within the Salvadorian left and growing violence against the rural communities by the left, who had been their greatest supporters. And it was the beginning of a big change.”

She said cell phones and social media are only tools of journalism.

“Being on the ground, with an open mind, is simply key to being a good reporter,” Garrels said.

She said technology cannot replace “professional journalists who can find a range of voices, judge their authenticity and accuracy, and provide context.”

But great danger awaits journalists on the ground in today’s conflicts and wars. She said past wars now seem romantic.

“It was nothing like the dangers we see now where we are as journalists targeted,” Garrels said. “We’re high-value targets either for money or for political points.”

Garrels said she is known as the “un-embedded reporter in Baghdad.” But she said embedded reporters are as old as war. “We all embed in some form or another, we just don’t want to get in bed with them,” Garrels said.

Thomas “Mac” Deford, president of the forum’s board, introduced Garrels, who covered Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

“She earned international recognition in 2003 by being one of 16 U.S. journalists to remain in Baghdad during the U.S. bombing,” Deford said. “As U.S.-led forces advanced on the city, she remained at her post, describing the scene on the streets and reaction from those she encountered.” Garrels wrote about those experiences in her book “Naked in Baghdad.”

Garrels said it was a “carefully calculated decision” to stay in Baghdad in 2003. She said the situation became more dangerous after the bombing. “So accurate from the air, so dangerous on the ground, Americans are,” Garrels said.

She said that story is not over, as forces in Iraq are drawn down to deal with Afghanistan and the Middle East Spring.

“If we’ve learned nothing from the folly of what we did in Iraq, then the thousands of deaths will be for naught. And we need to keep thinking about it, and not leave that story alone,” Garrels said.

Garrels said her proudest career moment came as the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled. But the pride came from reporting the actual events on the ground, not getting the “iconic” snapshot.

“There were so few Iraqis that the Marines had to come in and pull down the statue,” Garrels said. “And I spoke to far more Iraqis that were sitting on the sidelines, standing there in the byways and highways off in the neighborhood.”

Talking to the Iraqis, she found that they were terrified.

Talking to the Americans, she found that they did not know what was next; they had no orders.

“As TV provided pictures of this great, iconic moment – the statue being pulled down – I reported my version of events,” Garrels said.

She said Morning Edition called and asked if she wanted to refile the story. Garrels said no.

“In Iraq, it was only by being on the ground, consistently, for months on end, that journalists were able to foresee sectarian violence, which officials dismissed,” Garrels said. “Only by being on the ground were we able to witness the new and growing role of hired security companies like Blackwater that did so much to undermine the so-called mission. It was only by being on the ground that we were able to document the corruption and waste of billions of dollars allegedly invested in schools and hospitals.”

She said reporting on the run up to the war was not good, but journalists have recouped. She also said Congress failed to use its oversight power.

Garrels was asked if the public is well informed today.

“I am very concerned that making war has been a lot easier than resolving problems here at home,” Garrels said. “I think the big issue for all of us as Americans, as journalists, whatever, is balancing a smart engagement oversees with a need to fix things at home. We are running up a hideous deficit. It’s scary. We are only as good as we are educated.”

The Nieman Fellowship program is a year at Harvard for mid-career journalists. “Nieman Fellows are provided the opportunity to step back from deadlines, renew their intellectual curiosity and enrich their understanding of the topics they cover,” according to the program’s website.

The Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations has been meeting since the mid-1980s to discuss international affairs. For more information, visit midcoastforum.org.