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The everyday sexism of being a woman war correspondent
(It’s coming from inside the house...)
Fearless reporting, a behind-the-curtains look at how journalism is made — and an unabashed point of view. Welcome to Chills.
Years ago, I met a photographer while on assignment in a rough part of the world. He was the portrait of a rugged, world-weary, risk-taking journalist in his cargo pants, with his camera equipment hanging off him like Christmas ornaments. He was venturing into dangerous territory to document soldiers who had been forcibly conscripted — a lot of them were just boys.
Everyone admired this guy’s photos and his efforts to unpack a complex side of conflict, one that can easily slink to the back pages while news outlets instead highlight the booms of the battles being fought on the frontlines and in politics. The admiration I heard also always had an extra sheen to it because he was a man.
People would say things like, “Oh, it’s so sensitive of him to explore trauma in his photos.” But that’s a whole other story to write — why the media industry praises men who do work that involves emotions but tells women to “toughen up” and to stay away from anything too touchy-feely if we want to be on par with our male colleagues. Maybe it’s no longer said out loud, but it’s always been an undercurrent, in my experience. Then there’s the fact that women who cover things like women’s rights are belittled, sometimes to our faces, but even more so, I’m sure, behind our backs.
I remember thinking that it was good that the photographer was doing this work; we need more people covering the delicate trauma beat. But something felt off about the whole thing. As I watched the photographer being universally lauded, I knew women journalists who were doing the same kind of excellent, sensitive work, also in dangerous places around the world — but they were fighting tooth and nail to get published or to be paid a living wage.
After I got back to the U.S., I went to meet one of my editors for a drink at a dive bar. He’d invited along a young foreign correspondent friend of his who was briefly in New York City, visiting from an occasionally explosive country where he worked as a reporter at a middling news outlet. My editor and I had been having a great time, but as soon as the friend joined us, he performed that handy magic trick so many men are good at: He turned the woman next to him — me — invisible.
Mostly, he accomplished this through his body language. He angled himself away from me and only looked at and spoke to my editor. Immediately, all the fun I’d been having slunk from the room as the two of them carried on talking about insider journalism stuff.
I did that thing that women often do when faced with such a situation: I laughed at things they said and tried to interject occasionally in an attempt to participate in the conversation. It wasn’t working; the friend never even turned his head. That is, until he suddenly had a pressing need to put me in a box — one he could put the lid on and slide under the table without feeling guilt. Aka he was double-checking that he wasn’t doing anything “wrong” by excluding me from this two-person conversation about journalism.
“You’re not really a journalist, right?” he said. “You’re an activist.”
His words were a spray of bullets that slammed into my (cloaked) “press” body armor. This random 20-something guy who didn’t even know me had decided who I was, despite the fact that I’d been working as a journalist at that point for nearly 15 years, often in conflict areas around the world for some of the most respected outlets in the profession.
As someone who used to get more upset than angry, it makes me happy in retrospect that I flew straight into rage.
“I’m sorry, what?” was my first eruption.
My next, fast-on-its-tails question was: “Which of my stories in The Atlantic or The Nation do you think are ‘activism?’”
He warbled whatever in response, I suppose trying to argue his point — I’d stopped listening. Instead, I watched his mouth opening and closing like a fish suffocating on land.
I got up and left.
What happened in that bar is a pretty typical example of the underlying sexism I’ve felt and witnessed as a woman in journalism for more than 20 years; I couldn’t possibly be utilizing the same precision journalistic tools as that guy. And if we women cover war or other heavy subjects, the sexism can get even more intense, and that much more frustrating.
Sometimes the chauvinism is internalized. For years, I didn’t think of myself as a war correspondent. That was partly because I was doing a lot of investigative reporting and opinion writing. But mostly, it was because while I had worked in multiple treacherous countries and precarious situations, I didn’t think I was doing the kind of work that makes one a War Correspondent. I didn’t report from where the bombs were falling — places like that have been traditionally the domain of “bang-bang” journalists, usually men.
Instead, I went to the safer refugee areas along a country’s border, like Syria’s. Although “safe” is likely an illusion in such places — it is never guaranteed. (Remind me to tell you sometime about being forced to flee from Bashar al-Assad’s thugs while at the border in Turkey.)
I was certainly at risk of being killed or kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a few other places I’ve been. It was just more that I’d die from a targeted gunshot or a makeshift bomb rather than a mortar shell or missile.
I thought that the kind of reporting I was doing didn’t qualify me for the job title. It included speaking to women and girls who had been raped or lost loved ones in war. What does the trauma of displacement and conflict do to a person? Especially one who may already be living as a second-class citizen? How do people find justice for what was done to them? A new, safe place to live?
I reported on the fallout of war, the psychological and societal effects. I still do.
In the end, it’s not a matter of being called one thing or another as a journalist — “war correspondent,” “investigative reporter” (unless you have a staff job. Some outlets and journalists take that stuff extremely seriously, as in, DO NOT touch a politics story unless someone on the D.C. desk approves it. There are also obviously different pay rates for different titles).
Still, that photographer documenting forced conscription — it’s irritating: When he is widely lauded by our colleagues as a rockstar war correspondent while I’m being called an “activist” for doing the same kind of work, for caring about the people I cover, we have a problem.
Over the years, I’ve complained to my female colleagues about this disparity. Why didn’t he ever get accused of “activism”? (Which is not a bad thing in the context of atrocities, in my opinion.) Why was he automatically given the title “journalist” and called brave while I was labeled by people I didn’t even know as something else despite doing similarly painful work? Because I wrote about women? Refugees? Because I didn’t want to be shot to death or blown up by a mortar round? Because I wanted their suffering to end?
Side note: Absolutely no shade to activists. I’ve met and worked with hundreds in the field and at home, and there are brilliant people in that world. And, of course, the line between journalism and activism can be wobbly. As I wrote here: “Yes, I often do write with an agenda [in the context of war crimes] — with an eye toward creating change. In fact, I would describe the mission of my work the way ProPublica describes theirs: ‘To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.’”
For some reason, wanting my journalism to expose horrors that need to be stopped makes me an outsider in many men’s minds, despite the countless male journalists who hope for the same. Gender-bias remains, unfortunately, a foundational part of our profession.
At least now my internal inability to think of myself as a war correspondent has been officially obliterated. While working in Ukraine over the summer, I lived through countless air raid alerts and missiles hitting the city, so my inner “might be killed” barometer rose (dropped?) precipitously.
Since returning home, I’ve realized something important. I no longer care whether I’m called a war correspondent, an investigative journalist, or whatever. I do care, however, very much that I receive the same respect as my male colleagues, especially when I am taking the same risks to tell critical stories. I’m at a point in my career — my journalism career — where I will accept nothing less.
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