Female conflict reporters with unprecedented access, a report

Introduction

It was Clarissa Ward’s senior year at Yale University, and the comparative literature major wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to do with her life. Then two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and it wasn’t long before Ward realized that she would dedicate her life to bridging the gap between vastly different cultures.

“I’ve only ever been interested in the international element of journalism. For me, I understood from [9/11] that there was a serious problem of communication in the world and a serious problem of understanding, whereby America was clearly misunderstood…but also we were misunderstanding a lot of different places and cultures in the world,” Ward said.

Ward, now 38, is a senior international correspondent at CNN. She has made a career of reporting from ravaged conflict zones. She has been embedded in the Middle East and reported on the Syrian Civil War from the front lines, even defying Assad’s regime and going undercover to tell civilian stories from Aleppo and other devastated Syrian areas.

“On a more idealistic level, I think I wanted to have a humanizing effect. The dialogue after 9/11 became very toxic, there was a lot of dehumanizing people. And I should say this was on both sides. It just seemed clear to me that you needed people who could straddle both worlds.”

Ward, who is half American and half British, doesn’t see herself as a trailblazer. She credits that to the generation before her, women like Christiane Amanpour and Martha Gellhorn. However, she is somewhat accustomed to encountering people who question her career choice, from its low-maintenance lifestyle to its life-threatening situations.

“The advice that I often give to young journalists is not to be afraid of your own ambition. I remember so many times when people would ask ‘what do you want to do?’ and I would say ‘well, I really want to be an international correspondent, I want to cover conflict,’ and people would be like ‘woah, kiddo, take it easy there.’ That can be hard when you’re younger.”

After a decade-and-a-half in the field, during which she has freelanced and worked for Fox, CBS and CNN and has won a Peabody and three Emmy Awards, Ward has made a critical discovery. She deems it a “common misperception” that her male counterparts are treated better or are more likely to produce compelling stories, especially in predominantly patriarchal nations. If anything, Ward said, she often has the upper hand. She explained that embedded has a more unceremonious notion than being a reporter on a military mission. When Ward goes undercover in Syria, it is often too dangerous to stay at a safe hotel. Rather, she finds herself “embedded” in a family’s home, where they have volunteered to let her lodge. In these Muslim homes, Ward has access to discussion with both the women and the men of the households. There is a consensus that, as a Western woman, Ward is not excluded from the men’s discussions. However, she is also welcome to join the women over tea to hear about their experiences. A male journalist would be restricted under Islamic custom to remain with the men. Hence, Ward, who speaks Arabic fluently, has the ability to amplify the voices of these women, whose stories may otherwise be, quite literally, lost in translation.

In August of 2016, Ward’s journalistic influence led her to the United Nations, where she gave an impassioned speech about the state of Aleppo. Her first-hand experience inside the country, mounted on top of her experiences embedded in Iraq and reporting from various other violent war-zones, had given her the wisdom and international clout to discuss what she had not only witnessed, but experienced. Any correspondent embedded, in any sense of the word, could serve as a barometer to express the state of the nation from which they are reporting. The extra asset that Ward and other women reporters have to offer is a certain amount of unprecedented access to half the population. These candid interactions, and the stories they produce, have the ability to begin discussions that influence public opinion and, ultimately, policy and display of power.

History of War Embeds

Journalism is the first draft of history. Hence, it’s critical to get the facts right. For many years, however, American journalists who were reporting from the sidelines fell into a repetitive game of telephone, through which the facts would be distorted or dramatized. When the United States invaded Iraq, which was a widely supported exertion of military action in 2003, the Department of Defense officially began a new journalistic process. They would embed reporters with the military, giving the storytellers frontline access. The practice was immediately controversial, despite the executive branch’s efforts to define “military journalism” as an entirely separate entity from propaganda. In Joint-Publication 1-02 (henceforth, JP 1-02), the Department of Defense clarified that, “Public affairs counters propaganda and disinformation by providing a continuous flow of credible, reliable, timely, and accurate information to military members, their families, the media, and the public.” This was one of 16 references to propaganda included in an updated version of JP 3-61 that was published in 2005, two years into the War on Terror.  Many journalists, activists and public citizens opposed this action, viewing it as a threat to ethical journalism. Despite backlash, the practice continued – not only in Iraq. War correspondence and conflict reporting independently also continued throughout the peak of the Embed Era, and is prevalent today all over the world. As these operations continued to gain traction, and necessity, more and more women began to surface as prominent and frequent war reporters.  

Examples

Andrea Bruce, a World Press Photo Award-winning photojournalist, has been embedded with the military and spent a substantial amount of time covering human interest stories in conflict zones (and areas that “feel like conflict zones”) abroad. She bases her demeanor off of the community she is covering. In the Middle East especially, it is the people – not merely the government’s laws – that dictate how she dresses and behaves. Certain neighborhoods have more fervent religious beliefs than others and tend to treat women with varying degrees of respect. However, Bruce says that in these nations, she is an “honorary man.” This same phrase was wielded by Ward. Based on interviews, it became clear that women had a few advantages, even in the most gender segregated nations. In the Middle East for, example, women are allowed access in homes that male reporters are not granted. Yet, they are not bound by the strict religious or governmental laws that prevent women from achieving equal social status in those places. Even in nations with the most fervent non-secular law, it is often (though not exclusively) implied that, as a Western woman, reporters are not bound by the same rules that keep the genders segregated natively. “Men and women are very different,” said Ward, “and you get very different insights into conflict or any kind of story from sitting in the two different rooms and hearing the two different genders. It really gives you, I think, a much more nuanced and textured and deeper look at whatever story it is.”

Bruce had a similar experience. Her main objective when shooting most stories is to “meld into the woodwork.” In other words, she takes herself out of the story as much as she can, in order to capture the subject or the scene with as much honesty and clarity as possible. One topic that interests her particularly is prostitution. Her series “In War’s Wake: Prostitution in Iraq” followed the ordinary nightly journey of a prostitute in Iraq supporting herself and her young son. She recognized that in most stories about prostitution, the women profiled were posing for the camera. “Rarely do male photographers get the idea of female prostitution right,” said Bruce. “They don’t see the intimate, the indoor, the reason behind what [the women] do.” Her gender allowed her to take a different angle, and to gain the trust of her exposed subject. “Being a woman probably does affect my approach, and probably how the prostitutes react to me, as well.”

Furthermore, women are generally viewed as less of a threat in these inherently patriarchal nations. This is useful to female correspondents, and not only when it comes to gathering sources, networking and producing content. It also impacts their physical safety. While a male correspondent may be just as brave and willing to pursue dangerous, even radical stories, women are statistically less likely to be kidnapped or killed. In the International Federation of Journalists report “Journalists And Media Staff Killed 1990 -2015: 25 years of contribution towards Safer Journalism,” there were 42 journalist deaths in the Middle East, Asia and the South Pacific in 2015. Of these recorded fatalities, which included both foreign and respectively domestic reporters, one was a woman. Most of the attacks that caused these deaths were deliberate. According to Ward, all of the pre-travel security detail is exactly the same, despite a correspondent’s gender. Hence, the disparity between death rates abroad may be partially because women are still less present as reporters in these areas – although that gap is narrowing consistently – but likely has to do with the fact that women are generally perceived as less of a threat. Ward understands the advantage of being a woman in terms of security. “I have found it much easier to go undercover, much easier to just pretend to be asleep while going through a checkpoint,” said Ward, who rationalizes this by the general sentiment in these nations that women are weaker and less threatening than men. “Even if I’m arrested or caught, I do, on some level expect that – while it’s certainly not going to be pleasant, I feel like I may get slightly gentler treatment on account of my gender,” she continued.

Another critical facet of storytelling advantages as a woman is fashion, and the ability to blend in with more ease than a Western male. This contributes to both security and being in the right place for the most in-depth conversations that lead to the most truthful stories. Female reporters who travel to nations where women are expected to dress a certain way are very wary of the way they present themselves superficially. According to Bruce, this is not only based on the country, but could shift drastically from community to community, especially within non-secular nations. She would make sure that she was always dressed appropriately in order to make the people with whom she was working feel comfortable. This is sensible; after all, if a person was too busy marveling at her bare shoulders, they would be too distracted to serve as a thoughtful subject of her photographs and stories. Although it’s undeniably possible, it is somewhat more difficult for a man to show his comprehension of a neighborhood or group’s cultural dynamic via his physical presentation.

Ward also used fashion to her aid. She was particularly cognizant of its ability to allow her to go – quite literally – undercover.  “[For security] sometime’s as a woman it’s easier. When I did a trip to Syria two years ago and it was an extremely dangerous time, we went undercover. We were wearing a niqab so the only thing showing was like a slit where our eyes were. That made it significantly less dangerous for me than it would be for a male colleague who is immediately identifiable as a Western male.” She would even wear dark contacts to shade her blue eyes. This plan is not foolproof, but made her less of a target. A Western man cannot hide his skin, and many of the physical expressions of culture for Middle Eastern men come in the form of facial hair or other non-removable items, like a hijab or niqab.

In many nations where women are treated as second-class citizens, they are also overtly sexualized and dehumanized. While Ward emphasizes that she does not flaunt her femininity, being a woman can inadvertently lend itself to capturing a potential source’s attention. Kim Barker authored The Taliban Shuffle, a memoir based on her experiences as a Middle Eastern correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. Like Ward, she emphasized that she made no effort to parade her sexuality, but distinctly recalled moments when having a womanly shape was helpful, and even protective. “But somehow,” she recalled, “where my skills, talent, and perseverance had failed, my unremarkable ass had delivered.” In this instance, she had been in a mob-like setting, and had been offered a safe seat in a higher-ranking Pakistani lawyer’s. Her memoir is humorous, and she displays how she typically relied on her journalistic integrity and ability to producer her work. She recalls a moment when her fixer, or the local who serves as translator and often booker or arranger, told her that it was easier to work with her upon their first meeting, when she was “sweet and gentle.” Barker quips that she never considered herself sweet and gentle, but, objectively, perhaps she used those tactics to gain the trust of the men with whom she was working abroad. As ward put it, “as a journalist, you just do whatever you can with the tools that you have, within the bounds of ethics. You’re job as a journalist is to improvise and to do what you can to get closer to the truth.” Ward explicitly emphasized that this is meant to be inclusive of demeanor shifts – whether to be more aggressive or particularly polite – or other ethical means of asserting oneself as a reporter abroad. This is not encompassing of anything physical.   

But there’s a paradox here: in order to be respected as a reporter by colleagues, audiences, higher-ups and, ultimately, yourself, vanity is not the preferred method of networking. Most women who choose to dedicate their lives to telling stories abroad are doing so because of a calling, Ward said. And the women who are the most powerful correspondents, she added, are glamorous in their own right because they have built a longer-lasting career based on the work they do.

Counter-Examples

This is not to say that being a woman immediately and unfalteringly gives women the upper-hand. There is rampant sexism, both abroad and in television studios and newsrooms domestically. Kim Barker begins her memoir by establishing that, back when more women were being sent abroad at the start of the so-called War on Terror, she had to accentuate to her boss that she was a perfectly “expendable” candidate for foreign correspondency, because she had no children or husband. As is the case with myriad of careers, men would not be subjected to such personal life scrutiny. However, in this modern age of coverage, this would likely be a consideration for anyone planning on uprooting their lives, even temporarily, especially if they are entering areas that are dangerous for journalists.

Another very real concern for women who enter violent zones is sexual harassment. As Barker describes in her book, acts that Americans perceive as sexually abrasive and offensive are normative in certain nations. This danger  is particularly prevalent when a reporter is in the middle of a crowd, perhaps covering a protest or demonstration. Barker described being repeatedly pinched and groped, and of course there are extreme instances like what CBS reporter Lara Logan survived in Cairo. The argument here is that these experiences could prevent a reporter from getting the best story possible, because they are seen as an object. However, this does not change the fact that women are also able to tell the stories of other women, who endure this kind of treatment on a regular basis. A man might not have such access, but it also might be more difficult for a woman who has been mistreated to open up him.

One other challenge is that women may not always know when their gender is influencing their ability to produce their best work. An editor or producer can decide to send another reporter to a dangerous place and can say it is because their style works better for the story. A woman can be left out of a conference because of her gender without her awareness. Ward and Bruce both countered these inequities by pitching their own stories or freelancing in order to best advocate for themselves and the work they need to produce.

Influence on Foreign Policy

Generally, women who are abroad do their best to be treated equally. One area where this is particularly apparent is in when women are not only in conflict zones, but embedded with the military. Although the Pentagon technically banned women from frontline jobs within the military until 2015, female reporters had been officially embedded since the early days of the Iraq war. Hence, it was critical for these women to learn to communicate and interact effectively and appropriately with the men around them. According to a Newsweek article published in the midst of the Iraq War, “embedded with units in all branches of the military, reporters of both genders were granted nearly the same amount of access to troops and the front lines that the media had in Vietnam.” Hence, both women and men with embedded reporter status were granted experiences that women in the military did not have. This gave female embeds, or “fembeds” as they have since been dubbed, the opportunity to report from a lens that no person was experiencing. There were hiccups, of course: Andrea Bruce often found herself sleeping in a supply closet – the only place that locked from the inside – for her protection. She was even told to her face that she shouldn’t be there. For Kim Barker, no matter how hard she strived to behave like “one of the boys,” they insisted on being superbly polite to her, which made it more difficult, though not impossible, to get the most candid stories, or feel completely trusted by them on the front lines.

However, every experience that has separated a woman reporter (whether she was embedded or in a conflict zone) has influenced foreign policy. Public opinion is influenced by media intake. Clarissa Ward’s Twitter profile picture displays her discussing Aleppo on CNN’s behalf at a UN conference. Her Tweet publicizing her interview with Charlie Rose, in which she discusses at length her experiences in Syria, has dozens of likes and retweets and can be viewed by her 42,000 followers. Similarly, Andrea Bruce’s “Unseen Iraq” column that ran in the Washington Post, was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people each week. Hence, seeing as how these women have the ability to get unique, even unprecedented coverage abroad, they are changing the way the public thinks about issues abroad. Hypothetically, this can be reminiscent of the Vietnam War, and make people question sending troops abroad, or it can impact the sharing of humanitarian care when a female reporter covers a group of Syrian women who were abandoned by their families and have little access to medical care or food.

There’s another theory to support this claim, known as anchor camaraderie. This represents the relationship between the audience and the reporters they get used to seeing. According to Rachel Davis Mersey, Ph. D, research shows that the amount of attention people pay to their news source is dictated in part by the “ability to develop basic trust” in the person delivering the news. Studies, including an ABC article published in 2011, have also shown that people are typically more receptive to a woman’s gentler, softer tone, which is why so many products that give us information (e.g. Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri). Many have criticized this as an act of sexism, however. Therefore, women who deliver news of a harsher nature may have more of an impact on the psyche of listeners or viewers. Naturally, this falls into the broadcast realm more than that of print.

As the Vietnam War proved, and the latter years of the War on Terror are displaying, public opinion will ultimately influence foreign policy.

Conclusion

This topic has not garnered a great deal of scholarly research. There has been a small amount of media-on-media coverage regarding women doing dangerous work abroad, especially when there is some tragic occurrence. Hence, this paper is principally based on interviews and the first-hand experiences of the interviewees, all of whom have achieved objective success in their fields.

The misconception that women are marginalized as foreign correspondence has been proven untrue by Western women who have traveled into some of the world’s most dangerous zones and proven that women can produce equally thorough work as their male peers. In fact, these women often have novel stories to tell, as they are able to take more risks than said men and can earn the trust of sidelined people, especially other women, in nations abroad. Ultimately, these stories allow them to change the way that their audiences – which can reach a governmental viewership – perceive the places on which they are reporting.

For Clarissa Ward, however, these trials do not prevent her from telling the stories she feels need to be told. “Of course there are places where it’s a pain to be a woman. There are places you can’t go to. But for the most part I find that it opens more doors than it closes,” said Ward. The dynamic shifts depending on the nation and the day, but she has seen this consistent trend since her career began as an intern in CNN’s Moscow bureau. “I really can only think of a few instances where it’s worked against me, and many more where it’s helped me.”