Jemima Lewis: Journalism is crass, especially for women

Would media studies be so popular if it included a module on the self-loathing involved?
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I don't know Victoria Lambert, but my toes are curled on her behalf. The freelance journalist made the papers for all the wrong reasons this week, following the publication of an e-mail she sent appealing for "photogenic" war widows. Lambert, commissioned to write a feature for Glamour magazine, had contacted Military Families Against the War (MFAW), asking them to provide case studies of women aged between 30 and 38 whose husbands had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

There was just one little proviso. "Glamour magazine is very looks-conscious," explained Lambert, "so, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, they need to be photogenic, or at least comfortable in front of a camera! The editor likes to approve each case history, so when I send her a short bio ('X is aged X and lost her husband in the war X') she likes to see a jpeg pic too. I know this is a big ask, but it's something she demands! Hey ho!"

Hey ho indeed. MFAW has rejected Lambert's request: "We are as much sad as angry about it," mourned a spokeswoman. Glamour's editor, Jo Elvin, declared herself "outraged and sorry" that such an email was ever sent. As well she might be: it must have been a shock to see editorial policy on tragic totty spelt out so publicly.

Journalists, for all their cant about seeking out the truth, can be terrible hypocrites. Everyone - both inside and outside the media - knows that editors like to put pretty ladies on their pages, regardless of whether the story is about fashion or war. This is not really an issue of sexism: such pictures appeal to women readers every bit as much as men. It was, after all, Glamour that wanted pictures of hot widows - not Razzle.

One of the reasons that journalists have such a dubious reputation is that we reflect public tastes, which tend towards the crass, frivolous and voyeuristic. This is, as teacher might say, as painful for us as it is for you. I often wonder whether media studies would be such a popular subject if it included a module on the embarrassment and self-loathing involved in being a hack.

Sometimes it's the fluffiness that gets you down. My friend Bridget Harrison, until recently a reporter at the New York Post, can pinpoint instantly the nadir of her career. It was the day after the US government had released photographs of the captive Saddam Hussein in his underpants. Bridget's mission: to find the most luxurious boxer shorts in the city, get the words: "With love from the New York Post" screen-printed onto the backside, and then find a way to smuggle them into his secure unit in Iraq.

But fluff is at least entertaining in retrospect. The same cannot be said of stories involving grief and loss, where the demands of human decency come into conflict with those of page-turning journalism. In my first job on a national newspaper, as a callow 21-year-old, I was ushered to a desk and told to ring a woman whose son had just died in a gruesome train accident.

I had to ask her: "Can you tell me what's going through your mind?" She was extremely forgiving - she seemed grateful just to have someone to talk to - but all I can remember of that conversation is the deafening consciousness of my own inadequacy.

One of the reasons there are lots of women in journalism is that we are assumed to be "empathetic" and "good with people" - and therefore better equipped to squeeze the juicy quotes out of them. But empathy is not always a virtue in such matters.

The most effective journalist I ever met was also the most unfeeling. She was rumoured to have stood on Ella Fitzgerald's doorstep when the singer was dying of kidney failure.

Every time Fitzgerald tried to escape to go to hospital, the hack would assume a star shape, blocking the door until the great woman coughed up a suitably tragic quote.

My own days as a reporter came to an end shortly after I was sent to a London hospital to interview pregnant women whose sickly babies had to undergo surgery while still in the womb. I accompanied one of these women into the operating theatre, quizzing her tentatively about her feelings.

But then, without warning, one of the surgeons pulled out a needle as long as his arm and plunged it into her swollen belly. I fainted, slid under the operating table and got my feet tangled up in a mass of wires. The surgeons, deciding it was unsafe to move me, slipped a pillow under my head and tiptoed around me for the remainder of the procedure.

You have to be tough, and more than a little shameless, to be a proper reporter. Lambert, with her apologetic exclamation marks and almost tearful "hey ho", was too conscientious for her own good. A less scrupulous hack would simply have requested photographs of the grieving widows, interviewed the pretty ones and put the rest "on the spike", as they say.

It isn't kind, and it's certainly crass - but it's what the public wants.