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American Journalism Review
Women on War  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1994

Women on War   

Women are playing a major role in the once virtually all-male preserve of battlefield reporting. Does their gender make a difference in their coverage?

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi ( is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Nobody noticed the red-haired woman slip onto the bus in Belgrade and blend in with the mothers and crying babies. The tools of her trade – a computer and satellite telex – were packed away with cartons of Marl-boros and an extra pair of knickers.

The woman carried an Irish passport and one more essential item – a brightly colored flowered dress. She'd learned from experience that in a war zone, a touch of femininity could mean the difference between life and death.

Traffic thinned as the bus rambled across the Serbian border toward the killing fields of neighboring Bosnia. At one military checkpoint, the woman watched as a carload of foreign journalists, all men, was pulled over and searched. The passengers were interrogated at gunpoint then ordered to turn back.

The woman sighed with relief. Once again she had man-aged to slip past the "hack pack," as she calls war corre-

spondents who travel in herds. She was headed for the forbidden back roads of Bosnia, where rape and torture have become routine, and where the outlaws, some labeled war criminals by U.S. State Department officials, make the rules.

Avoiding the pack – instead, cramming into a bus with the locals and "boxes of suffocating chickens," as she describes it, and entering the heart of Serbian-occupied territory – is part of Maggie O'Kane's reporting strategy. The reporter for the Guardian in London says it's based on a simple notion: "I am a woman. Nobody pays attention to me."

In greater numbers than ever, women journalists are flocking to the world's war zones – in the Balkans, Azerbaijan, Somalia and, not too long ago, the Persian Gulf. In Bosnia, where the brutality and anarchy of the war make reporting sometimes extremely dangerous, the risks women and men are taking to send stories home are especially high.

Large numbers of women covering war is a relatively new phenomenon. During the past century, only a handful of women made it to the battlefields of World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam.

Like their predecessors, contemporary women reporters say that even today they have to fight the sexism of their male colleagues. But adding more women to the mix is slowly breaking down a number of stereotypes long held by many reporters and editors. Some men acknowledge, for example, that women hold up as well as men under fire. Rather than being a disadvantage, women in Bosnia say being female has sometimes proved to be a plus in gaining access and information, or providing cover as in O'Kane's bus ride. Others believe that more women in the newsroom, where the news agenda is set, also contribute to a more humanistic approach to the way war is covered.

More debatable, however, is the notion that women report and write about war differently than men. Some reporters and editors say women's coverage adds a human dimension not always found in the more typical war reporting of body counts and troop maneuvers. Women reporting from the Balkans who were interviewed for this article feel their coverage often delves more deeply than that of their male counterparts into the human toll of the Balkan war – into the psyches of children in Sarajevo who witnessed parents blown apart by mortar blasts, or the tortured minds of women who had been held captive and gang-raped.

Not everyone, however, thinks the distinctions are so clear cut. Don Fry, a former associate with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies who has researched the impact of gender on reporting and writing, believes it's sexist to say that men and women write differently. "It's easy to equate men's writing with hard news and women's with features," he explains.

But Joseph Cvitkovic, a Pittsburgh psychologist who has researched masculine and feminine traits, says that cultural expectations of men and women, learned throughout life, could have an impact on reporting styles. "The male journalist could feel compelled to suppress feelings and emotions in a war zone," Cvitkovic says. "He might not focus as much on human interest stories out of concern that he would be typecast as too soft or too feminine.

"By contrast, the female journalist may react to her natural inclination to be more in touch with feelings and select a more emotional type of story because she has been permitted, even encouraged, to do so throughout her development."

O'Kane agrees. "Of course, some of our male colleagues are exceptions," she says. "There's Roy Gutman [of Newsday] and others who have done a splendid job of covering how humanity is affected. But I feel, on the whole, that all of the women routinely provide this kind of coverage. It's what many of us do best."

Gutman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Balkan coverage, calls Maggie O'Kane "the ultimate war feature reporter – one of the best." Last year, O'Kane was named "Journalist of the Year" in England – an award equivalent to America's Pulitzer Prize. The judges called her "a brave journalist who has run enormous risks" to report her highly personal accounts of human rights violations in the region.

Other women who have covered the war include Sylvia Poggioli of National Public Radio; CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Jackie Shymanski; Janine di Giovanni with London's Sunday Times; the AP's Maude Beelman; Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times; Penny Marshall of Britain's Independent Television News; Judy Dempsey of London's Financial Times; and freelancer Anna Husarska.

Female journalists may be covering wars in record numbers simply because there are more of them. In addition, editors are beginning to give women equal consideration for top-notch, tough assignments.

O'Kane believes there wouldn't be many female war correspondents if they waited around newsrooms for the assignment. She worked as a freelancer mainly for the Irish Times and sent herself to cover the Persian Gulf War in 1991. "I would bet that most of the newspaper women in Bosnia initially were freelance," O'Kane says. "Women have to get themselves out there and prove they can do it."

Di Giovanni, an American who covers the Bosnian war for London's Sunday Times, says that despite experience in the West Bank and Nicaragua, she had to lobby hard for the Balkan assignment. The paper sent her, she says, largely due to the support of its two top editors, Andrew Neil and Susan Douglas. "At first, I met a lot of resistance from male editors," says di Giovanni, who wrote a book about the West Bank titled, "Against the Stranger: Lives in Occupied Territories." "But Neil stood by me throughout. He was the first one to get the wheels turning. Susan argued that I would cover a more human side of the war."

Penny Marshall of Independent Television News told a wire service reporter it was the initiative of two women editors that led her to investigate the abominable living conditions in Serb-run detention camps at Omarska and Trnopolje in Bosnia. Her pictures of terrified, bone-thin prisoners – most of them Muslims – stunned the world and resulted in some of the camps being closed.

Even then, Marshall says, she realized there was a gap in her coverage. She saw women in the detention camps but it never occurred to her that they might have a story of their own to tell: mass rape by their Serbian captors. In an interview with the news service, Marshall said, "It didn't strike me that the women's story was as urgent as the men's." The issue of mass rape finally did receive prominent international coverage, Marshall says, "mostly because female reporters were there to respond once the story surfaced." She said the episode changed her own approach to reporting.

Editors who work with male and female journalists covering the Balkan war tend to identify qualities such as sensitivity and compassion – not gender – as key factors in the kinds of stories reporters bring home.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour has reported from many of the world's battle zones and her dark blue flak jacket has become familiar to American television viewers. "Christiane has a real flair for reporting emotional impact and emotional drama, but that's not to say a man couldn't do it," says Eason Jordan, senior vice president of international news at CNN. "It's too broad a generalization to say that women report one way and men another. But I would say that particularly from the Balkan region, women certainly have done exceptional work on reporting the human drama."

Alvin Shuster, foreign editor for the Los Angeles Times, also sees little difference in the way men and women cover war. "Carol Williams is a very sensitive, very talented correspondent who gives us all dimensions," he says. "In Somalia, Mark Fineman cast the same sort of eye on that situation – compassion mixed with analysis mixed with tragedy."

Cvitkovic thinks the distinctions between men and women reporters are subtle. "Great reporters are likely to have an integrated style that blends masculine and feminine qualities," he says. "The stereotype of men focusing on the Popular Mechanics of war, and women focusing on emotional issues that might appear in Woman's Day reflects a narrow view and misunderstanding of those traits which impact a writer's interest and style."

Don Fry believes men and women approach war reporting differently. "In a war zone, I would expect women to move away from stories about bang-bang and opposing forces and battle lines, that is, the politics of war," says Fry. "They might write about effects of the war on daily life, on families, on women. Life in a refugee camp is just as interesting as life in a foxhole."

Di Giovanni agrees. "I know this may be sexist, but I do think women report war differently," she says. "I don't know anything about weapons. Macho male journalists sit around talking about 62mm mortars and AK-47s and Kalashnikovs. I've heard some of the guys say that war is a high – that it is even better than sex."

That doesn't impress di Giovanni. "I am at my best writing about human suffering. I'm interested in how people live, how they cope, how they survive the war," she says. "I do get emotional about a story. It makes me a better writer."

The fact that female journalists are more willing to forsake the traditional roles of wife, girlfriend and mother for a year of living dangerously could also affect their reporting, according to Cvitkovic. "The woman who chooses to be a war reporter is clearly moving out of a traditional female role," he says. In fact, Cvitkovic speculates, "she may actually have greater similarity to her male colleagues than to other women in more traditional roles. These similarities might include the willingness to risk life and limb to expose human injustice under the most tragic circumstances."

Corrine Dufka, an American photographer for Reuters based in Bosnia, says she is compelled by the human angle. "I have a commitment to photojournalism and to gain international awareness of the suffering in this war," says Dufka, who covered the civil war in El Salvador for six years. "I feel it is my responsibility to work for change. If I was forced to do sports assignments, I would go back to being a social worker, which was my first profession."

Dufka doesn't feel gender makes much difference in the final product. "It depends more on the personality, character and sensitivity level than on being male or female," she says. "My goal in covering this war is to reflect the human cost and make it difficult for the world to ignore. Some male photographers also are doing an excellent job of that."

Others also think the notion that gender alone makes a difference in reporting styles is misguided. "Roy Gutman wrote human rights stories and almost no politics," says Thom Shanker, who has covered the Balkan war for the Chicago Tribune. "Carol Williams has done very little combat but has produced some of the best political work of anybody in the field." CNN's Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Peter Arnett, who has covered 17 wars during his 30-year career, agrees, pointing to stories the New York Times' Gloria Emerson wrote about Vietnamese 'Hooch' maids, local women hired by GI's to clean their quarters, do laundry and provide sexual favors. "But Liz Trotta, a member of the NBC staff, wrote bang-bang like everyone else," he says.

Julie McCarthy, European editor for National Public Radio, says the tenor of the newsroom, not gender, makes the most difference as to whether stories center more on the human condition or on battlefield heroics. "At NPR, we set an agenda that demands a more human approach to coverage in the Balkans," she says. "We try to stay away from day-to-day bang-bang. That is a shared concept and a shared partnership for our reporters, male and female."

Historically, there has been a rich but sparse "who's who" of female war correspondents, from Dorothy Thompson, a columnist who wrote about Nazi Germany for the New York Herald Tribune, to the New York Times' Emerson in Vietnam. (See "The Women Who Paved the Way," page 23.)

But even by the late 1960s, when women's liberation was beginning to take hold in America, female war correspondents were a rarity.

Today, the stereotype of women under fire still tends to reflect outmoded perceptions: Women scare easily and quickly become shell-shocked; women demand special treatment – better food, more comfortable sleeping quarters, private bathroom facilities. But it's a stereotype that's beginning to break down.

"I have seen an amazing, total change in women and war reporting," says Arnett. "In Vietnam, you could count the number of women reporters on the fingers of one hand." He says back then, some of the women prided themselves on being as tough as men; they felt they had to be very masculine to succeed. "The women received sexist treatment from the men, including myself, who believed they shouldn't be there," says Arnett. "They tended to be objects of ridicule or sexual desire in Korea and Vietnam."

At the Los Angeles Times, Alvin Shuster says the paper has more women on the foreign staff than it did 11 years ago when he came there. "They've thrown themselves into the story much the way males did before them. In recent years it has been the women who have been in the more dangerous places, such as the Middle East, Central America, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans."

In recent years, the Washington Post's Caryle Murphy won a Pulitzer Prize for the stories she filed from Iraqi-occupied Kuwait; the Post's Molly Moore stormed Kuwait with U.S. Marines and wrote about her experiences in a book titled, "A Woman at War." Kate Adie of the BBC earned the title "generalissima" for her Persian Gulf War coverage.

But the gulf war was neatly packaged for journalists, with press pools, briefings and carefully planned access that allowed some reporters, like Moore, into the military's inner circle. There are no such niceties in the Balkans.

In this war, reporters must maneuver among three heavily armed factions, the Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Croats, in the bloodiest European conflict since the Nazi era. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 38 journalists have been killed there and dozens more wounded, making it one of the deadliest assignments of modern times.

Corrine Dufka, the Reuters photographer, sustained internal injuries and facial cuts when the armored Land Rover she was riding in hit a land mine in 1993. "There was nothing left of the vehicle. One of the other passengers broke both his legs; a third man also was wounded. We all would have been dead if we had been in a soft-skin [an unarmored vehicle]," Dufka says. She has since returned to Bosnia.

Despite their track records, many female journalists say they still have to pass a series of male-prescribed rites of passage. "At first, the men were suspicious of me," says di Giovanni. "They had to see how I would behave under fire. Once they saw I was strong and stayed calm, it was OK. But, I felt I always had to prove myself and the strain of that is very great. I know a lot of women who feel that way."

In one of her articles, di Giovanni quoted Patrick Bishop, a foreign correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph, on his battlefield observations: "Women behave with much more dignity under fire than men. They just get on with it."

During the Iran-Iraq war in 1987, he recalled, "I was explaining the difference between outgoing and incoming fire [to a woman reporter] when an incoming landed about 50 yards away. I was terrified and threw myself headlong onto the ground. When I looked up, she was standing there looking at me with pitying bemusement."

Frontline gossip, di Giovanni says, also can add to the strain of being one of a few women to gain entry to the inner sanctum of what still remains a mostly all-male club. Some have been targets of rumors alleging that female journalists exchange sexual favors with military commanders or soldiers in the trenches for exclusive information or access.

"I spend hours with Bosnian commanders drinking coffee and talking in order to gain information, and suddenly I am accused of having affairs with them by the hack-pack boys. Men are notorious gossips," says di Giovanni. "If a woman gets special access to an area or a special story, they begin sniping and saying we are using sex. Some female journalists are reluctant to talk about this kind of sexism because, in the end, we have to work with these guys. We put ourselves out on a limb. It's very tricky."

It appears, however, that men are becoming more accepting. "When you're looking over the crowd at breakfast and trying to figure out who you're going to load into the car with you that day, you pick the most solid colleagues," says Thom Shanker. "Gender doesn't enter into it."

Top-notch women in the forefront of coverage in the Balkans, a war entering its third year, tell another story about the role gender plays: Once they make it to the battlefront, being female can be an advantage. For one thing, women don't tend to arouse as much suspicion as male journalists, and some admit to using the "bimbo" cover to gain information from commanders.

"The Serbs would always haul the male reporters off for all sorts of grillings. But they would ignore me," says O'Kane. She has hitched rides with troops on their way to bloody stand-offs in places like Gorazde, a city O'Kane dubbed "the silent Sarajevo," hidden from the world until she stole past Serb gunners and crossed a mined bridge to report another untold story.

At one point, she was stopped on her way to the besieged Muslim town of Srebrenica, accused of being a spy and held for a day at a Serbian command center for interrogation. In a story for the Guardian, she reproduced some of the dialogue: "More coffee?" asked the Serbian major. "Now who sent you here? Have you been sent by a foreign power? What instructions were you given?" Then, noted O'Kane, a thick military bean soup arrived on a tray.

"To the soldiers, I was just a pain in the ass; a funny red-haired creature; a dumb female. They didn't find me a threat," says O'Kane. "If they think I'm a bimbo, that's just fine. They become less guarded and give me better quotes."

Corrine Dufka believes a woman with a camera in a burned out village or POW camp is not as threatening as a male photojournalist. "The men in this region of the world often don't take women seriously and that can be an advantage," Dufka says. "It can provide much greater access."

Psychologist Joseph Cvitkovic says this reaction is not surprising. "When women show up in a war zone in Bosnia, the military could be caught off guard," he says. "We're talking about perceptions, and cultural and sociological mind-sets. These men have been conditioned to view women as nonthreatening and powerless, and that certainly could be an advantage to a female reporter in gaining access to information."

In the summer of 1992, O'Kane boarded a bus in Serbia and headed for the Bosnian town of Foca, 60 miles southeast of Sarajevo, which had fallen into Serb hands after a nine-day battle. She joined locals who had fled the fighting and were returning home. The town was sealed off to journalists.

"The road into Foca wound through the mountains and soldiers demanded passes at almost every turn," she says. "But somehow, I made it through. When I reached Foca, Serb soldiers spotted me immediately and freaked out. They took me to their chief who was very suspicious and very angry. He demanded to know how I got there. I told him I came by bus.

"He told me the town was under military control and ordered me to leave. I said, 'Well how am I supposed to do that? The bus is gone. I have no transportation. I can't leave.' So he ordered a police car for me."

The trip out, O'Kane says, turned out to be a reporter's bonanza. "We ended up on the outskirts of Gorazde, another city under attack, where thousands of people were trapped," the reporter recalls.

"I had just heard on my shortwave radio via the BBC that the Serbs and Muslims had signed a peace agreement in Geneva, and here I was, sitting on a hill with Serb soldiers, watching them shell the city in blatant violation. They even let me look through the gun scopes. When I asked them about it, the gunners shrugged and said, 'That's the Geneva peace deal. Not ours.' Once again I had amazing access. I believe I was the only journalist there that day."

How difficult is it for a woman to travel alone? "Whether you are male or female, when you first turn up on the frontlines, you're perceived as an oddity," says O'Kane. "The fact that you're a woman makes you seem even odder. So the soldiers deliver you to their commander, and in a sense, you become his property.

"I remember an incident with one commander who was very charming but had the typical macho attitude. He saw me as his plaything, so I decided to play with him. I asked if I could go to Gorazde, a town nearby that was being pounded by artillery every day. The press was being kept out, but he actually provided an escort.

"His soldiers looked at me like I was the commander's chick. They were very cooperative. I got into Gorazde when no other reporter did. Once the commander puts his stamp on you, so to speak, you are protected. At least that's how it works most of the time."

Cvitkovic says machismo can be a big factor in areas such as Bosnia. "A macho commander...would be looking at the reporter as a sexual object, and by virtue of that, be more likely to boast with great bravado about all the big guns, ammunition and power he has," he says. "If she smiles and seems impressed, she's likely to gain even more information."

And, for O'Kane, there is always the flowered dress.

"If I'm walking down a road on the front and a sniper spots me," she says, "he's more likely to shoot if I'm wearing khaki or look in any way like a combatant.

"But if someone slightly suspicious is walking down the road in a war zone wearing a pretty flowered dress, a sniper is more likely to pause for a few seconds before pulling the trigger. He's more likely to check it out. It's worked so far." l



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