BY Lyse Doucet

Female correspondents are changing the face of journalism

As 2017 began, a story about a female war correspondent sparked sadness across social media with tributes emerging from around the world to a brave young journalist. 

Thirty year old Shifa Gardi lost her life to a roadside bomb as she pursued a new lead about a mass grave in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

Her Kurdish television station, Rudaw, hailed her as one of its “most daring journalists.”

And not just that.

Her devastated colleagues made a point of mentioning that Shifa Gardi had “cracked the glass ceiling” by leading their coverage of the major military campaign to oust so-called Islamic State from its last strongholds on Iraqi territory.

Five years on since the first edition of No Woman’s Land, Shifa has been one of many courageous and committed female correspondents changing the face of journalism from the front lines of conflicts, crises, and other top stories of our time.

Recent reports and studies depict a news industry which, in senior editorial roles, is still largely dominated by men. But, on the ground, and in journalism schools, more and more young women are being drawn to this profession including some of its most demanding assignments which can present both risk and reward.

I, like many of my colleagues, don’t subscribe to a view that our gender determines what kind of journalism we do. But our own life stories do lead us to seek certain stories, and ask different questions, and being female is part of who we are.

And it can give us access.

In conservative or male-dominated societies, being female can open doors to people in power, as well as to women in all walks of life with vital insights to share.  Gone are the days when reporting on the human costs of conflict is just the sidebar to a bigger story about bullets and bombs.  It’s what matters most.

But it’s not enough to have more women telling stories which matter – as important as that is.  Real progress is marked when roles and responsibilities come with solid backing which minimises risk, and maximises reward.

Shifa Gardi was fortunate to work with the support and status provided by a respected local TV station. Her tragic fate unfolded when she stopped to interview a military commander whose foot was accidentally caught in a trip wire which detonated a bomb.

Too many journalists, both male and female, still take risks without the right resources to back them up.

My friend and colleague, Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum, remarked in a recent interview with the Rory Peck Trust that “there are more female freelances now, maybe for a good reason - young women feel more confident - and a bad reason: it's so badly paid many men don't bother. “

More organisations are now focusing on the special needs of freelancers. They’re making a difference. But problems persist including poor rates of pay, patchy records of payment, and insufficient support in both security training and equipment.

As major media organisations cut budgets for foreign news, and dangers grow on frontlines, new opportunities are also opening up for locally hired reporters to take on positions once taken by foreign correspondents.  Journalists working in their own countries can bring impressive contacts and invaluable knowledge. But they can also face greater risk from powerful interests. They need to know they have the kind of support and status a staff correspondent could take for granted.

Risks multiply not just on the ground, but in cyperspace too. Now everyone can be “googled” and “followed” on social media: extremist groups and criminal gangs tracking the movements of journalists; powerful players bent on suppressing stories or taking revenge. 

And there are many more sinister forms of surveillance.

It can mean there is “no place to hide.”  Dark places can and will do everything possible to extinguish the light shone by brave journalists.

At a recent event in London to mark five years since the acclaimed war correspondent Marie Colvin was tragically killed in Syria, I found myself surrounded by more than half a dozen young women in the last months of their journalism degrees. They came from many different capitals and cultures, and peppered me with many kinds of questions. Should they start freelancing in Cairo or Tunis? How about Colombia? Would it be good to spend a year in London or Paris to get more experience first? As we spoke, I drew in other women journalists to offer advice and enrich our conversation.

The gathering was to celebrate Marie’s life and her courageous on the ground journalism. It was also to raise money for a network we’ve established in her name to support and mentor young Arab female journalists working in difficult and, at times, dangerous circumstances in the Middle East.

Five years on since No Woman’s Land was first published, we still live in a time of great - and growing - dangers in frontline reporting which tragically steal the lives of accomplished correspondents like Marie, and Shifa, and many others. 

But this is also a moment to mark our greater awareness of risk, and the growing vigilance of organisations like INSI which help provide vital advice and assistance to help all of us do what we do.  

The old mantra must never be lost: “no story is worth dying for.”

But there are new stories worth taking risks for.

We must do what we can to help each other reduce the risk and reap the reward which comes from knowing we are telling stories which must be told - told strongly, and safely. 

'No Women's Land: On the Frontlines with Female Reporters' was published five years ago and remains a unique collection of articles, telling the personal stories of 40 women from around the world who work in the news media.

You can read Lyse's original article for No Woman's Land here.