Industry Report: analysing women working and reporting in war zones
Has war ever been just a man’s world?
“Women really weren’t tolerated in a lot of journalist jobs. You wanted to get ahead; you went and covered a story like Vietnam.”
Anne Morrissy Merick, the first female television field producer was one of a total of 467 female correspondents to cover the Vietnam War. During the late 60s, news organisations didn’t want women covering the most important stories. US Commander General William Westmoreland had been “horrified“ to find young women on the front line and issued an order banning female reporters from covering the Vietnam war. Circumstance aided female reporters, as the US refused to officially declare it a war.
The lack support given by newspapers to female journalists meant that women were forced to find their own way to battle zones and seek their own stories. Kate Webb, spoke to the New York Times about her time as a Vietnam reporter, observing, “In Vietnam, we became the bridge between two eras; the pioneers of World War II and the women of the modern era.” Webb paid her own way to Vietnam and freelanced for United Press International.
Jump forward to today, the story is much the same. The economic context in which journalist now work, has meant that newspapers simply don’t have the funds to insure journalists to go out and cover the stories. Andrew Pearson, Vietnam War correspondent writing for the New York Times, claimed that “to serve the public well, the industry needs the time and space to permit reporters to include a larger context in their reporting from abroad.” Newspapers do not have the ability anymore to give this time and space to journalists.
The way we read our news has seen a drastic change in recent years, notably with the advent of social media algorithms that filter our newsfeed. We are reading content that echoes our existing beliefs and therefore do not challenge ourselves to invest time into learning new information. Equally, internet paywalls have become a paradox for newspapers. In aiming to fund more stories they send people away by blocking content. People don’t need to pay to read about a war because war doesn’t change. It’s about broken buildings and dead bodies, and therefore to ensure people are kept interested by war, you need someone to be there to see it and report it first hand.
Social media has allowed us all to be journalists, men and women, voicing our opinions and shaping the way newspapers report stories. The demand for new information is higher than ever, but the way we are receiving it is different. In April 2018, the Syrian capital, Damascus was the target of a missile attack. The United States, United Kingdom and France launched more than 100 missiles against what they say were Syrian chemical weapons facilities, in response to a chemical weapons attack the week before. The Guardian cites, “Amateur footage” showing the missiles falling over Damascus as the airstrikes began. “There were no foreign correspondents on the scene; pictures were taken by citizen journalists and activists.” Channel Four’s International editor, Lindsey Hilsum, quoted a New York Times reporter who affirmed, “Citizen journalism is information – journalism is what we do with that information.”
The content created by citizen journalists is valuable and necessary for today’s media, however it blurs the lines of what we believe. Before the internet people were able to trust what they heard or saw or read via news outlets because it was all people knew. When Orson Wells’ “War of the Worlds” was broadcast as a radio drama in 1938, American newspapers printed the story that it created mass hysteria as people took to the streets to witness a real martian invasion. This is a story that was believed for eight decades until, in 1954, Ben Gross, a radio editor for the New York Daily News, referred I his memoir to the “nearly deserted” streets of New York on the evening that the novel was broadcast.
Whilst there is a need for citizen created content, journalist still make their own way to war zones in search of stories just as they did during the Vietnam war. Avery Haines, a Canadian journalist, went to Iraq in 2017 to film her documentary, “Life and Death under ISIS.” Haines told Steve Paikin in an interview on his current affairs programme, The Agenda, what she found, was young, freelance, female journalists, who had to be “Jane’s of all trades.” They were not out there as just journalists, but producers, writers and photographers.
The question of whether there is a women’s point of view when reporting, is a topic widely referred to in relation to media in general. The question of a female narrative in war and whether gender makes a difference on the front line, was discussed by Lindsey Hilsum on the weekly news and pop culture podcast, the High Low. Hilsum recently realised a memoir called “In Extremes” documenting the life of her friend and war correspondent for the Sunday Times, Marie Colvin. Hilsum noted how Colvin changed the angle on the way war journalists reported. Colvin looked past the military hardware of war and talked about the human aspects of war; the suffering of those innocently involved, and the human cost of war. An empathetic direction into war journalism was taken by women before Colvin’s time. Kate Webb, the Vietnam war reporter, told New York Times writer, Elizabeth Becker, even though she hated the “bang-bang” fetishisation of weapons culture, which was seen among her many male colleagues at the time, she had to have an understanding of this sector of war in order to be able to report the human interest pieces that interested her.
At the core of Western democracy is objectivity within war reporting. Colvin, gave a speech in November 2010 at St Bride's church, where she stated, “The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history.” If you relate this to McQuail’s theory on mass communication (2005), objective journalism “adopts a position of detachment towards the object of reporting” and “does not take sides in matters of dispute or showing bias.” Colvin reacted to this idea when talking about her time covering the Kosovo war, where she crossed the border with a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army and spent days in a trench being shot at by Serbian forces. She told Hilsum, “When you’re physically uncovering graves in Kosovo, I don’t think there are two sides to the story. To me, there is a right and a wrong and a morality, and if I don’t report that, I don’t see the reason for being there.” Whilst neutrality within modern war journalists is perhaps the ideal scenario, Colvin highlights how it is often difficult to practice.
In Colvin’s final case for the Times, published in 2012, she reported from inside the besieged Syrian enclave of Baba Amr. She documented the women and children taking shelter from the regime’s shelling. Five days later, she was targeted and shot after she felt it was her journalistic duty to return to Baba Amr and continue to cover the story. Colvin, well aware of the risks saw this as part of her job, and sparked the question of what we owe the public when reporting a war.
Dame Ann Leslie, foreign correspondent for the Express and then the Daily Mail, was known for risking her life to produce a story. She donned a disguise to meet dissidents in Tehran when researching the serial murders in Iran in 1988–1998. She was shot at in Bosnia during the international armed conflict in the early 90’s, and conducted interviews in forbidden territory within North Korea. AA Gill, before his death in 2016, told the Observer that Leslie, now 77, was “A proper hero. A lot of foreign correspondents are into issues or tactics, whereas for her it's people first.” Taking risks for a story is second nature to journalists like Leslie and Colvin, however when they are injured or killed the line between reporting the story and becoming the story blurs. Lindsey Hilsum stated that “no story is worth dying for,” in her speech in 2013 at St Brides, after Colvin’s death. As journalists take themselves into war zones freelance under the allure of obtaining a dangerous story, they often go without the proper training and risk developing a cult of martyrdom within war reporters.
Colvin, Leslie and Webb are among the many female war correspondents who have risked their lives to show an alternate view of the horrors of war. The human interest stories are what draw in people today, as their timelines are flooded with negative reports of damaged buildings and lives lost. Creating unique and interesting content is craved in modern society, especially when war reporting can appear so one-note. This would suggest we have evolved past reading female written war narratives as a “women’s point of view,” to simply being a “point of view” in the context of a greater story.