Frances Harrison helicopter

Journalists debate topic of women reporters in conflict zones at launch of new INSI publication

Those in the room stood in silence as the list of names ran along the screen, 75 in total. Each one was that of a woman journalist who had lost their life while trying to report from the frontline since 2003.

The final name on the list was Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times foreign correspondent killed last month in Syria, and a stark reminder of the continuing dangers for all journalists working to shine lights on the darker places in the world.

But the list also acted as a powerful opening for a discussion last week, at the launch of a new publication by the International News Safety Institute called 'No Women's Land', on the life of female reporters in particular, reporting from some of the most dangerous corners of the earth.

The book includes more than 30 accounts of women journalists about their experiences. Not every experience is alike, but the overall finding is pretty clear – women journalists as a group are still fighting their own battles around their gender and its place in the news industry, as well as the quite literal ones on which they are reporting.

Those heading up the foreign news desks of international broadcasters say their decisions on the journalists  barrier is not about being denied opportunities – it is because there are fewer female TV journalists.

Sky's head of international news Sarah Whitehead insisted it is "an absolute a no-brainer that women are out there", but despite this found a "bizarre recurring theme" in western media in particular of reflecting on the fact women were covering the big breaking news stories of the past year.

This idea that mothers should not be out there... What about fathers, brothers, sisters? Everybody is a human being in their own rightSarah Whitehead
"This idea that mothers should not be out there. What about fathers, brothers, sisters? Everybody is a human being in their own right. I found it it particularly extraordinary, there was a lot written about Alex Crawford [Sky News' special correspondent] ... 'mother-of-four, what was she doing out there'.

"Well actually in her team there was something like 12 children between the team there ... they're important too. The job is to get out of there absolutely in one piece and tell the story."

But despite this journalists like Sky's Alex Crawford – in the words of BBC World News' head of news Andrew Roy – remain "unusual" in the industry.

"Alex is unusual and that's bad for us," Roy told the audience. "That reflects badly on the media that women with children are not still doing these sort of roles".

"Quite a few of them have chosen not to, quite a few have moved into other roles. But we don't have enough women reporting on the frontline like Alex who have families and the rest of it.

"I don't think there's anything in the BBC stopping them if they want to, but it is certainly the case that Alex stands out because there are just not that many women television reporters."

Both Roy and Whitehead said gender does not come into the decision-making process when considering who to send out on foreign assignments, but simply on experience, skills and teams which work well together.

It is "quite a cold calculation about the best person to do the job", Roy added, and that "what sex they were didn't come into it".

Whitehead said the only time that gender might be a consideration in the reporting of a story is where the interviewee, such as a woman who has "suffered a tragic issue" and has requested a female interviewer.

"Then of course, that is a moment. But for what I would call the big breaking news stories, absolutely not."

And for some of the panel, being a woman has actually worked in their favour when reporting from dangerous places.

"Especially in Darfur or in Somalia where people are more sensitive that perhaps women want to speak to other women," CNN's Nima Elbagir said. "I've never had a situation where people have said you can't go because you're a woman.

In the most tense of situations there is something about turning up as woman … people tend to give you perhaps a tiny bit more of the benefit of the doubtNima Elbagir, CNN
"In the most tense of situations there is something about turning up as woman … people tend to give you perhaps a tiny bit more of the benefit of the doubt."

She added that "you see the atmosphere go down a few notches when we turn up at roadblocks" and that she has "never found being a woman a hindrance, ever".

Elbagir started out as a stringer for Reuters in Sudan, and this brought to light for her another issue for women journalists, in particular local journalists on the ground.

"There was a sense that local women could go into these places and somehow it's OK, it was when the western female correspondents turn up, that somehow they need to be protected more than we do."

"I wonder whether that's why people aren't surprised when they see Arab women reporting from Palestine on Al Jazeera Arabic ... it's like 'well that's where they're from', so somehow that makes them bullet-proof".

"There is always the sense that 'well you'll be OK because you're from there'. It's funny how big 'there' becomes when you're African.

"We do have to question the very colonialist mentality we bring to these debates, that it's not just women, it's western female correspondents who somehow need to be protected."

And the issues facing local journalists remained a key theme in the debate. Panelists and members of the audience called for systems to be put in place which could help local journalists and freelancers "get more training".

Reuters journalist Maria Golovnina said more needs to be done to address safety issues for "stringers, fixers and people on the ground who a lot of time do a lot of the work we rely on".

"I would like to see more training for staff on the ground," she added, and for both male and female bosses in the media "to understand it is normal for women to do frontline stuff if they want to."

Photographer Kate Brooks said safety is a significant issue for photographers often working as freelancers in dangerous environments.

In general there needs to be a lot more discussion about safety in the industry, particularly in printKate Brooks, photographer
"In general there needs to be a lot more discussion about safety in the industry, particularly in print. When it comes to television very often you have security advisors and I think there is a lot more consideration.

"... Since photography is largely based on freelancers, we are often left to seek all this out ourselves, buy satellite phones, to buy body armour, to go and do training and I feel that is the biggest issue.

"There are issues particular to women and I think everyone can benefit from this book as well."

The full video of the discussion is available from Reuters Insider.

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