She’s a war reporter, but what is she wearing?

There’s an article in the U.K. Independent today about women war correspondents. Called “Female war reporters: ‘We’re given the softer side of war’,” the story gets into why—and whether—women journalists are unfairly criticized or kept out of the action. What really drew my eye was this:

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 [Sky News’ Alex] 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.

Imagine you are in Libya, camera strapped around your neck, ducked behind a crumbling concrete barrier, bullets flying. You make it out uninjured and with your photos ready to be sent back to the newsroom—i.e. you did your job well. Then your male colleague asks why the hell you are in this war zone instead of at home feeding your three kids dinner. This actually happened to one female journalist I spoke to. And this was only one time she heard this out of dozens.

“They don’t ask this of their male colleagues who are fathers,” she said to me. Wouldn’t that be a fine question? But journalism, like much of society, isn’t equanimous.

Plus, as [CNN’s Sara] 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.”

Lara Logan recently told me that she has long been accused of reaching a high level in her career because of her looks. With blonde hair and makeup, she didn’t (or perhaps still doesn’t) fit into the expected physical mold of a hard-nosed war reporter—think Christiane Amanpour, strong profile, dark-haired. A quick review of Logan in the press reveals the obvious: She has been excoriated for her looks. But it’s her remarkable reporting that deserves our attention.

For instance, Logan sought out a story that would have otherwise not seen the light of day in Kosovo about the rape of citizens during that conflict. She knew that rape had been used as a weapon of war in Serbia and used that evidence to seek this story with no visible lead. It turned out she was right. And now the world knows that women suffered in Kosovo in ways that would have remained invisible, along with so many other stories of women in the world.

Logan and others have told me that when female journalists are working their way up in the profession, it is impossible to talk openly about sexual harassment—be it groping in the field or more subtle forms of sexism like unwanted flirtation from bosses. To do so would mean losing assignments. No woman wants to be a “problem” to their editors, they said. Staying silent isn’t parity. It’s oppression.

Yes, it’s important to take note that women are out there on the front lines every day giving us the news. This is progress. But it’s more important to note that the constant attention to their looks and motherhood prevents them, and us, from true equality: an equality that allows women to do their jobs well and without harassment and criticism because of their gender.

3 Responses to “She’s a war reporter, but what is she wearing?”

  1. elaine

    Amen. Great post. Just a few weeks ago somebody (I believe it was a Reuters piece) wrote about Sara Sidner’s “thick mane of hair” and that she seemed a “force of nature”. I think her reporting has been incredible, but I’ll never forget that phrase, only because when is the last time somebody commented on a male foreign news correspondent’s hair, whether thick or thin, unkempt or well-groomed? #eyeroll

  2. Madeline

    Not to mention Rebekah Brooks, whose hair was practically equated with her wrongdoing in news coverage of the News Corp. scandal.

    • Piotr

      To me when you are in a really tough spot it doesn’t matter what sex you are. I’ve seen female colleagues showing more control under fire than men and don’t think that’s anything unusual or that it has anything to do with gender.


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