It's More Dangerous Than Ever to Be a Female War Reporter

"Women are targets": an interview with former foreign reporter Anne Sebba, author of a book on women journalists

Ho New/Reuters

It's tempting to think women can do everything men can. And then you hear about Lara Logan, who was sexually assaulted in Egypt during a protest, after Mubarak had been deposed and while she was with her camera crew. Logan told a press conference last month that she now keeps a journal for her two young children "so that if something happens to her they'll know why she does what she does."

Anne Sebba, a biographer and former Reuters correspondent in Rome, notes that in many ways, things are easier today for a woman reporter than they were in what she calls "the days of the still-idolized Martha Gellhorn, who had to dress up as a hospital orderly in order to report the D-Day landings in competition with her husband Ernest Hemingway." The new edition of Battling for News, Sebba's 1994 history of women reporters, is a story of women's competence in the field overcoming sexism against them.

But while she acknowledges that a lot has changed for the better, Sebba has given the new introduction to Battling for News a downbeat spin. (The book will be re-released in the UK in April.) While inherent bias in journalism has eased, changes in media technology and combat tactics have put women reporters in physical peril.

I spoke with Sebba in Washington, D.C. while she was in the U.S. promoting her latest book, a biography of Wallis Simpson.

You said you're revising Battling for News to have a more pessimistic conclusion.

When I left the book, it seemed as if women had broken down all the barriers. They were reporting sport, and finance, and war. It was all going to be fine from here on. But when I actually looked at it again, after a gap of 20 years, I had a much less rosy view of the whole picture.

Why was that?

Because women are targets. Lara Logan, particularly, is one of the stories.

There aren't carefully drawn battle zones anymore. The war is right in the center of town. There's 24-hour news reporting, so it's not as if you write your story and then, like Martha Gellhorn, go back to your hotel and have a drink with the boys and it's all over 'til another day. You don't have time to develop an idea, to go to places; you're just expected constantly to update the story without having the time to work out what the real story is.

So that puts men and women under pressure. But women are targeted more, because 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. And I think that's why the Lara Logan story is so terrifying for women.

The other thing I've learnt is that male editors, and particularly television editors, are exploiting women. 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. So they might end up in a really dangerous trouble spot without adequate preparation. And because you're hardly paid, it's often the young, inexperienced girls who are prepared to do it. And the editors are prepared to exploit them because it makes exciting news. It's vicarious thrill. You see a gorgeous woman on your screens in a flak jacket, and it's almost like entertainment.

Now, I'm not saying at all that Lara Logan comes into that [uninformed] category, please, she was a really experienced journalist. But I still think what happened to her is a sign of why it's so difficult to work in these current conflicts--because a Western woman like that is perceived as doing something that's not acceptable to all their cultural beliefs. So they get this frenzy whipped up, and you get separated from your TV crew, your support crew, and there is nothing you can do.

Hollywood Reporter ran an article on Logan about a month ago. She has two young children, one is four and one is two. Based on what she has said, it seemed she had scaled back the degree to which she is operating in conflict zones. You can't blame her for saying that, obviously, given what happened and the fact that she has children.

In your experience, how common is it for a woman to change how she reports if she has kids?

I certainly know several who, once they become parents--this is very dangerous ground, because of course there are fathers who cover wars, and of course they feel desolate about the danger they're putting themselves in, and possibly leaving a child. I still think it impacts women more. I think a woman has carried a baby for nine months, and she worries more about that.

How common would you say sexual harassment is?

I think a lot of women suffer what they might call minor harassment. I wouldn't call it minor. Women have been touched, felt up, expected to perform sexual favors to get a story--they've certainly had unpleasant and violent experiences and they don't report it. Because they don't want to lose their jobs.

How much of this is the responsibility of the news organizations that send women into conflict zones? Apparently a lot of news organizations aren't doing adequate training. If you're an editor, assigning someone to do a story, where is your responsibility if something happens to your reporter?

I think the big news organizations, the UPI, AP, Reuters, and the Sunday Times--do take their training seriously. And I think they do only send experienced correspondents with proper insurance and proper training. And they don't force them to go where they don't want to go.

I think the danger comes back to what we were saying before--these young kids, who are barely out of media college, try and be freelance journalists, and so they often go off their own and get a story. Those are the danger areas.

So you think that a lot of the issue is lack of experience. I guess, then the question becomes--if you're sitting reading this and you're 25 and you're starting your career as a journalist, and you want to be a foreign correspondent--how do you get that experience, if it's dangerous to get it on the ground? Do you work as a local reporter?

I absolutely hear what you're saying. Where do you get the experience? I suppose I should say "covering little, local wars." Little conflicts.

[Both laugh.] What would be an example of a little local war?

God. [Pause.] What would be?

I can tell you, having started my career recently, you see few avenues forward. The entire business is shifting. And it seems like a lot of places are using more freelancers. That's a structure where there is less support for you, period.

Of course. And you're constantly trying to prove yourself. That's really the danger. Well, I suppose--where do you get experience? You get experience covering riots and revolutions in your own country, where you're familiar with the back-up, or you go somewhere--you go abroad. Maybe you need to live in another country for a while, and be really familiar with that country's systems, and to know who you can trust, and who your best friend is, and whether he's sussed out the safest route for you.

I don't know how you get experience in the really sharp end. I suppose it's just a slow process; you don't launch yourself into a dangerous foreign war before you've really got to know that country's culture and customs and people. I'm still trying to think what a "little, local war" would be...

We've been talking about extreme situations, about conflict. But one slightly less dramatic, but in some ways more prevalent problem, certainly for young people my age, is that it's very difficult in the business right now, particularly with the low wages you're paid. You mentioned the large number of women graduating into doing media jobs. It seems that women run a risk--or maybe everyone runs it--that you get caught in a low-paying, low-level gig where you can't move up.

Do you think that the problem that women are facing at this point in media is just a problem with how we report out foreign conflicts? Or is there a problem in the newsroom?

Your question was whether there's still a male culture in the newsroom. I would guess that really has changed. Because there are just so many women doing it, and it's not acceptable any longer. It may be under the surface, but I've been too long out of a newsroom. I don't think the old, you know, let's go down to the pub and see who can down more beers fast enough--I don't think it's that sort of macho style.

Men still dominate the top of the masthead and young women are at the bottom--because, as you said, so many of them are graduating into media these days. Obviously, people are terrified of being sued. But certainly there's still the potential for a gendered power dynamic.

But that's true of any career. I don't think that's specific to journalism.

I have a daughter of 34, who's just taken maternity leave for the second time, and she knows that promotion is not going to be easy, because she's just had two years off, to have two children. I think even though the company that she works for, and hundreds of other young women, is terribly helpful and friendly, she has lost those two years and she will be punished for it.

It's not journalism. I think that really is just life. And a lot of things need to change before that will. One [thing] is probably compulsory paternity leave for a year. When that happens, then employers will just see within that pairing, a man or a woman--either of them could take the time off.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.