February 21st, 2013

Is It More Dangerous than Ever to Be a Female War Reporter?

In an interview with the Atlantic, author and former Reuters correspondent Anne Sebba makes several points about women war reporters that current female conflict journalists find insulting.

Sebba, who is the author of a history of women reporters called Battling for News, told the Atlantic’s Emily Chertoff: ”A lot of these conflicts are now in Muslim countries, who see Western women wearing provocative—that’s their word, not mine—provocative clothes, and therefore, they feel, the West has to be taught a lesson, that they’re fair targets, fair game.”

Sebba points out that more women are graduating from media studies programs and argues that editors “are prepared to exploit” young women because “you see a gorgeous woman on your screens in a flak jacket, and it’s almost like entertainment.”

In particular Sebba singles out young freelancers who don’t have the training and backing of a major news organization. “These young kids, who are barely out of media college, try and be freelance journalists, and so they often go off on their own and get a story. Those are the danger areas,” Sebba says.

In a response to the article posted on her Facebook page, Scout Tufankjian, a photojournalist who has worked in Egypt and Gaza, among other conflict zones, wrote that she “found lot of the assumptions within [the interview] to be pretty insulting. Especially the assumption that ignorance and inexperience is a gender issue, such as [quoting Sebba] ‘More women than men graduate in media studies. They don’t know how to find a fixer; they don’t know about weaponry; they don’t know where is safe, where is not safe—they just want to prove themselves.’”

Photojournalist Nicole Tung, who has worked in Syria, Libya and Egypt, agrees with Tufankjian. “It seems like Anne Sebba hasn’t been out in a conflict zone for some time now,” Tung told PDN via email. “I feel incredibly insulted, as do a number of other female journalists who’ve voiced their concerns over social media networks…. I have come across both men and women who started out as inexperienced as I was. In Syria in particular, there are many rookies heading in without any conflict experience and they are predominantly (I would say 80 percent) males going in, emailing me with questions about how to do this or that, how to find the right people, etc.”

“I think she also fails to mention that women weren’t the only gender targeted in attacks in [Egypt's] Tahrir Square,” Tung points out. “Men were, too, and continue to be targets until today. Few people come out and talk about that. Why? It’s not only because both women and men are risking losing an assignment, but because sometimes we personally feel we can overlook some incidents and keep on moving, working. It is about the story we’re covering and not about us. That’s the mentality a lot of us go in with, and turning the focus on us is something we try to avoid until it becomes something we deem necessary. I think social media is a big part of why we hear more about attacks on the press and in particular, women, these days.”

Sebba also argues that having children impacts female journalists more than male journalists. “I think a woman has carried a baby for nine months, and she worries more about that,” Sebba tells the Atlantic.

After war photographer Lynsey Addario was captured along with three male journalists, Anthony Shadid, Stephen Farrell and Tyler Hicks, while on assignment for the New York Times in Libya in 2011, she said she felt that being groped by her captors was no worse than being hit in the head like her male counterparts were. (The Libyan driver for the Times journalists was killed by the captors.)

In an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists, senior editor Lauren Wolfe asked Addario what she thought when one of her colleagues, Tyler Hicks, said during a panel discussion that it was a worse experience for Addario.

“Well, that’s his perception,” Addario responded. “Who can qualify what’s worse? Who has the right to say what’s worse? For me, when I was getting groped, I was listening to them—and I could only listen because I was blindfolded—I was listening to them get smashed on the head and I can hear them scream, like, grunting, and to me that was so painful…. It was horrible for all of us. I don’t understand why this is so much worse for me? Is it because I’m a woman? I don’t know who has the answer to that question.”

“I definitely think that more training needs to take into account female-specific issues,” Tufankjian wrote in her Facebook post, “but at the end of the day, of the 70 journalists killed last year, 3 were women and 67 were men. Has anyone heard any discussion about using these numbers to keep men out of dangerous situations? Maybe it’s just more dangerous than ever to be a war reporter.”