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Female Correspondents Changing War Coverage

Women offer the kind of reporting needed to cover modern warfare -- one in which the casualties are women and children more often than soldiers.
 
 
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Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's Enews.

(WOMENS E NEWS) -- As the number of women war correspondents approaches critical mass, they appear to be focusing more clearly on the toll that today's wars take on the civilian population -- the women and children -- who have little or no say in the decisions that lead to mass killing and wounding.

War reporting dominated by tactical questions, political infighting and policy disputes can obscure the trauma experienced by women who live in areas targeted for attacks. These noncombatants find their survival depends on fleeing to marginally safer ground or to the hell of a refugee camp, where their safety is by no means assured. In recent conflicts, civilians -- read mothers and children -- accounted for as many as 90 percent of all casualties, compared with 65 percent in World War II and 5 percent in 1900, according to Save the Children's annual report on mothers, released in May.

The stories of this type of pain and displacement are most often brought to the fore by women reporters whose contributions are changing the fundamentals of war reporting. Their voices are rising now in the forms of a collection of memoirs and an awards presentation, both forcing us to recognize that war causes protracted suffering in cities, villages and hillsides, the dwelling places of those who have little or no voice in the decision to wage it.

The memoir is "War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam," written by nine longtime journalists who reported from Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The prizes to be given today, Oct. 16, are the Courage in Journalism Awards, sponsored annually by the International Women's Media Foundation.

The physical threat to civilian women, and the destruction of their lives, is achingly obvious in conflict after conflict, says Kathy Gannon, The Associated Press bureau chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, one of this year's honorees.

"In every war, the worst victims are the women," she says. "In the Balkans, who are the biggest victims? The women. In any conflict, you'll find that's the case, if you just look." Afghanistan is heavily mined and its roads are patrolled by warring factions, Gannon says, so moving about for even the most innocent of purposes can be risky for civilians and the journalists who work among them.

Before 1970, only 6 percent of foreign correspondents were women. Today, The Brookings Institution estimates that more than one third are female and they have increasing influence on the content and tone of war coverage. They have paid their dues: Around the world, 18 women journalists were killed between 1993 and 2001, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And now it is important to listen to their views on how wars should be covered.

Several of the "War Torn" authors who were panelists at a National Press Club discussion in Washington said they would give the personal toll of war much more exposure if they were writing today. In Vietnam, women were determined to prove they could go into combat and get their reporting on the front pages and the 6 o'clock news.

"We were trying to prove we could do what the men were doing," recalls Denby Fawcett, then with The Honolulu Advertiser. Bored with her job in the women's section -- "where I covered parties the society editor didn't want to go to" -- she went to Vietnam. The first time she asked to accompany a unit into combat, a lieutenant colonel told her: "I could never let you do that. You remind me too much of my daughter." After such experiences, Fawcett acknowledged she was leery of being stereotyped if she did a "woman's story" about the impact of war on women, families, communities and the survival of ordinary people. Today, she wouldn't hesitate, she says.

The others agree that now that women are accepted as part of the press corps, they might want to fight for the right to do the job a little differently.

"I regret very much that I never wrote a story about the Vietnamese," says Jurate Kazickas, at the time a freelancer. "It was an 'American' war and people wanted to read about their boys." Ann Morrissy Merick, a former ABC-TV producer, says, "I think what we missed was history and economics. We over-covered combat and the personnel side."

Edith Lederer is The Associated Press's chief correspondent at the United Nations. She went to Vietnam in spite of the foreign desk editor's firm opposition to having women out there. She remembers being told that "the only way I could get a story in print on the impact of war on Vietnamese civilians was to find a woman who had lost a lot of children. So I did." Lederer's subject had lost three of four sons in the war and had no idea where her husband was.

Lederer ran AP's operation in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War. She will be involved in whatever happens next. Her plan for covering conflict now is to "be more balanced in trying to put forth the notion of the other side, the impact on ordinary people, or to delve more deeply, if possible, into what American soldiers really believe. That is the hardest, because the U.S. military can bottle up and control access and spin what soldiers say to people like us."

That means that journalists' access to civilians as well as military people could be difficult, even impossible. The relatively free rein given to media in Vietnam brought us the searing photo of a Vietnamese girl running naked after a napalm attack. Kate Webb, then UPI's Cambodia bureau chief, still remembers "the terrible innocence of children running toward the pretty napalm." Webb and her colleagues would tackle them to keep them away. "It is one of many terrible images that stayed with me," she says.

Those images evolve to today's: burn victims in Bali, carnage in Manhattan, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon; bombing sites in Afghanistan; funerals in the Middle East. Journalists interpret these events to the best of their ability, but making sense of it all is very hard. Few whose home becomes a battleground will understand why it is happening.

"Because the Taliban didn't allow television, people in Kabul were glued to their radios after the Sept. 11 attacks," Gannon says. "They had no idea what the World Trade Center was. Even today, a lot of people aren't clear about what it meant. They just know that a lot of people died."

President Bush says the United States is "a friend of the Iraqi people," who will be the first beneficiaries of a regime change. But bombing Baghdad will make it difficult for them to appreciate his cost-benefit ratio. Women who write about war believe there will be a lot of explaining to do to the people on the ground -- especially to the noncombatants, the women and children -- and the women journalists may take the lead in doing it.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly newsletter of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism (Second Edition), published this summer by Strata Publishing, Inc.