Female war reporters: 'We're given the softer side of war'

Female war reporters have a glorious history – so why are they still judged by their sex? Glenda Cooper asks the women who were the frontline faces of the Libyan revolution, including Sky's Alex Crawford, to explain

In the end, it came down to a pick-up truck, a laptop and a small satellite dish powered by a car cigarette lighter. And a great degree of bravery: with this, Sky News foreign correspondent Alex Crawford and her crew provided riveting coverage of the rebel advance into Tripoli, scooping their rivals in the background.

Every war has a media face: Kate Adie in the Gulf conflict of 1991, John Simpson in Afghanistan in 2001, "Scud stud" Rageh Omaar in Iraq in 2003. But the particular media focus for the Libyan revolution was that the first three reporters into Green Square, Tripoli, were all women: Crawford, Sara Sidner, of CNN, and Zeina Khodr, of al-Jazeera English – much to their surprise.

Says Khodr: "I was really shocked by the focus in western media on female reporters – there's been nothing like that in the Muslim press."

So is it patronising, irrelevant, sexist even, to mention Crawford, Sidner and Khodr's gender? Or can the fact that three women were at the forefront of media coverage of a revolution be worthy of discussion about how that revolution was perceived? A new book about reporting the Arab Spring, out next month, aims to look at this.

Executives are quick to say there was no deliberate attempt to foreground women reporting. Jon Williams, world news editor at the BBC, says: "This wasn't about male or female – it was about showcasing our best people."

But Khodr, senior correspondent at al-Jazeera English, says she ended up in Tripoli purely because she was assigned on that week's rota. Sidner puts the number of women down to "happenstance" and Crawford says although she was sent back to Libya because of her previous experience in Zawiyah, she believes there were so many female reporters because: "[news desks] did not realise how big a story it was going to be... When I was leaving Libya and going to Tunisia, [the BBC's] Ben Brown and John Simpson were going in – they are reporters you would expect in the starting line-up, but this time in the second line-up."

The fact that all three women were television correspondents was key, adds Lindsay Hilsum, Channel 4 News's international editor. "The fact that [Crawford] was doing live, rolling TV news meant that people could see her in a dangerous place," she says. "No one watched live on TV as [Sunday Times correspondent] Marie Colvin's eye was shot in Sri Lanka."

Of course, women war reporters are nothing new: from Clare Hollingworth and Martha Gellhorn in the Second World War to Kate Adie covering the Tripoli bombings of 25 years ago.

And as journalism jobs go, it can be a good one for women: Marina Prentoulis, Howard Tumber and Frank Webster, of City University, have argued that women front-line correspondents are less subject to gender prejudices than in other parts of journalism because they face the same psychological and physical hazards as the men.

According to one female national newspaper journalist to whom the researchers spoke, the reality was that: "everyone is reduced to an equal... no one would have ever said: 'We can't take you because you're a woman...' You were just another reporter."

But the difficulty for many women is getting the job in the first place. Crawford, a Royal Television Society award winner took six years to gain a foreign role. "I got turned down continually – it became a running joke in newsroom how many times," she recalls.

Those women who succeed in becoming foreign correspondents make up a very specialised group, according to Anthony Feinstein and Mark Sinyor, in a report for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. According to an analysis of more than 200 war reporters, they say female journalists are more likely to be single and better educated than their male colleagues but "no more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or overall psychological distress".

Yet those who do succeed in the job still face frequent prurient discussion in a way their male counterparts do not. Underlying the admiration for Crawford et al has been a continuing debate about their marital/maternal status; particularly those reporters who are mothers and continue to put themselves in danger.

Plus, as Sidner wryly puts it: "those reporting on us rarely fail to mention what we are wearing, how our hair looks, and our overall appearance in some of the harshest conditions humans have to face."

In a recent question and answer session at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Crawford said of questions over whether she should do her job as a mother of four: "It's frankly really insulting and very, very sexist. I'm working alongside today the chief correspondent who's a man who's got three children and there will be no one who says: 'what do you think you're doing, how awful, what are you doing to your children?'"

Yet even Crawford added that her children would prefer her to be a "dinner lady" than a war correspondent in danger. This debate was thrown into sharp relief following the assault on CBS correspondent Lara Logan while covering Tahrir Square earlier in 2011. There were concerns news organisations would be more reluctant to expose female journalists to possible danger by reporting on the Arab Spring.

Such suspicions have made women disinclined to raise the issue in the past: in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2007, Judith Matloff argued that women often failed to report assault in case it stopped them getting future assignments – even though a 2005 study for the International News Safety Institute, found that of those who took part more than half reported sexual harassment on the job. Both Crawford and Sidner say that they have found hostility to them as women broadcasters recently. "We'd had a couple of nasty moments of being mobbed outside a hotel in Alexandria," says Crawford. "They [the mob] started shouting 'bitch bitch bitch,' completely walked past the cameraman who is usually the first one attacked, [and] tried to grab me and the producer."

"I covered Libya during the revolutions and did not have a single incident," adds Sidner. "However, during my time in south Asia, and one of the Gulf countries during gatherings of large crowds of mostly men, I have been harassed while trying to report on a story. I have yelled, fought back, and simply moved away to try and get away from that kind of behaviour so that I could continue doing my job. It is maddening at times."

Yet the women who covered Libya were often keen to play down potential dangers and emphasise the advantages of their gender in covering the story. "Men find it easier dealing with women," says Crawford. "It doesn't matter what you look like or your age; if you have half an ounce of charm and sociability, you can use that – not in a Machiavellian way but just in getting on with people."

And Hilsum pointed out that there was a danger that one gender could be discriminated against as a result of difficulty in war reporting: "Often only women can talk to other women for cultural reasons," she says.

"It means women can get 100 per cent of the story and men only part of it. But, as I've said before, I don't think this means men shouldn't be allowed to report wars. I think they have a contribution to make, even if they can't get the whole story." But was the type of coverage in Libya different, though, because of the numbers of women journalists? Janine di Giovanni who has reported from Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan wrote that in war situations the stories women cover meant that they "were not equal to men".

"We are often given the softer side of war to report, 'the female angle' so to speak, feeding into the stereotype that women are more 'caring war reporters' than men."

Yet executives and journalists on the ground in Libya disagree with di Giovanni's concerns. Sidner points out "on a single day in Tripoli, CNN had three female producers in the field". Khodr says of the stories she has covered: "We were covering battles; then we did the makeshift jail where people were burnt alive. It's going to be a while before we turn to the feature stories."

Jon Williams points out that at the BBC while Orla Guerin had covered the plight of families in Misrata and a nurse in a Tripoli hospital, Ian Pannell had done similar stories. Williams goes on to talk of a "humanity and a personalisation of the conflict" in both Guerin and Pannell's reporting; something that is backed up by the academic research.

The team from City University argued that the shift towards human interest stories, encapsulated in the phrase "the feminisation of news", may be symptomatic of a broader cultural shift, arguing that favouring "more 'human' stories of civilian victims and some degree of emotional involvement, may be allowing women reporters more space for approaching war stories in their own way and, at the same time, allowing male correspondents to respond to the intensity of the war, without the 'macho' bravado often associated with the war correspondent".

"I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a consistent distinction between men's and women's reporting of wars and revolutions," adds Hilsum. "But I would say that when a man does the weepy, human side he is regarded as empathetic and sensitive, but a woman may be perceived as 'not coping' if she shows emotion."

And that perhaps is why the images of female reporters dominated the media agenda; not that there were women correspondents (there have been those for decades), nor that there were so many of them there (unlikely to be statistically greater than normal). But in a world where we are used to a subjective, so-called "feminised" approach to news, seeing Khodr, Sidner and Crawford in their flak jackets and helmets having to shout their commentary over the sounds of bullets being fired and rebels chanting was to come full circle. Just as men can report Williams's "personalisation of the conflict" without it being a shock, Crawford and others made it clear that women can report in the traditional "macho" way – and do it just as effectively, armed with only a car cigarette lighter.

Glenda Cooper's "Why Were Women Correspondents the Face of Coverage of the Libyan Revolution?" appears in '"Mirage in the Desert: Reporting the Arab Spring" to be published by Arima in October

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