I was chuffed to be asked to take part in a special panel discussion at Amnesty International's HQ last night on women reporting from the frontline, not only because it was a chance to reflect on my work and the nature of our journalism, but because I was going to be in good company – the three other female foreign reporters are not any old reporters, but among the best in the country – Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor of Channel 4 News, Christine Toomey and Marie Colvin, both of the Sunday Times.
Amnesty was holding the event as part of International Women’s Day and invited us to talk about the old chestnuts that are often thrown at female reporters – how being female affects our journalism, and whether newsrooms and editors are bastions of sexism. They also wanted us to share our experiences of how women’s lives are affected by war and whether media attention and campaigning can make a difference to their lives.
So, do we women journalists report differently from our male colleagues? All of us on the panel took slight umbrage to the question to start with – good reporting is, after all, simply good reporting. When you're singled out as a sex for reporting differently, it's hard not to suspect sexist assumptions – that women reporters are more tuned into people's emotions, more sensitive to the impact of war on families while, of course, allowing ourselves to be clouded by our emotions and so implicitly less able to stand back, analyse and be objective.
But we soon agreed that there are some undeniable differences. We cover the same stories as our male colleagues, but we get access to stories that are often denied to them, and so our insights on how conflicts affect women, say, are broader. Christine Toomey, a feature writer who has written award-winning articles on the postwar impact of mass rape in Bosnia, said that the subjects that often interest her are different from male colleagues, as is the way she interacts and communicates with people.
These differences also work to our advantage, including the frequent and potentially-irritating occurrence of not being taken seriously. In countries where there are restrictions on media freedom, there is nothing more satisfying than having your requests and questions met by mild amusement and curiosity, which does wonders in loosening tongues. It can also help distract government minders.
We were also asked whether there's a tendency for us only to cover women's stories, and if we are boxed into a category by commissioning editors. Just looking at the range of issues that each of us has covered – wars, gang violence, murder, trafficking, politics etc etc - the answer was a resounding no. Having said that, if you want to uncover human rights abuses, women's issues are obviously part of the territory. And if you want to uncover the world's unreported stories, it is very often women and children who are the most forgotten and the most vulnerable.
Lindsey Hilsum said it's important not to show emotion when reporting to camera, in order to appear authoritative and objective. She noted a double standard here, saying that if a male reporter became teary-eyed he'd be applauded for being sensitive and empathic, instead of the eye-rolling 'well, it's a woman' response that we would receive. But keeping my emotions in check is something I still struggle with. Although Lindsey did admit to the lump-in-the-throat moment, she was quick to add: only when the camera is OFF! With the style of Unreported World – where the cameras are constantly rolling in order for the viewer to get to see events unfold as the reporter follows the trail of a story – I don't always have that luxury. And when you're faced with a little boy telling you his world has been shattered and he is in constant pain because his penis and testicles were hacked off to be sold, or when a young girl breaks down as she says she has lost six babies and has such horrific injuries from childbirth she is incontinent for life, and the smell of urine that permeates from her means that her community have cut her off, it's not always easy to keep the emotions at bay. I'm a reporter, but I'm also a human, moved by tragedy, loss and despair. But luckily editors can work wonders, so wobbly moments can magically disappear...
Many in the audience at Amnesty, who included aspiring journalists, activists and campaigners, wanted to know if our work has a positive impact on the stories we cover, and also how we cope with the job. We all had encouraging tales of how pieces we had written or broadcast have inspired readers and viewers – even some politicians – to act. After seeing my report on child brides in Nigeria, a couple from the north of England contacted Channel 4 and are now trying to sponsor the young girl I mentioned above, and the hospital that was treating her. We had a similar response from viewers who saw the little boy in our film about the sale of human body parts in South Africa. All the panelists agreed that we do this job because we feel that exposing these stories to the world can make a difference. Even if it's a tiny difference.
But we also had a reminder that there are still many stories that desperately need telling – a young Sri Lankan woman in the audience at Amnesty broke down as she asked us our view on why the war in her country is so neglected and under-reported when conflicts like that in Gaza, rightly, command acres of news coverage.
This is a subject close to Marie's heart, having doggedly reported from Sri Lanka, and having been seriously injured there while on the job. It’s because the government has systematically banned the foreign press, local journalists have been killed and forced to flee their country if they dare file reports. Even reporting undercover has become nearly impossible. The result is an ongoing war without witnesses, which means less pressure on the international community to act.
As to how we keep ourselves sane and happy in the face of some of the horrors we have all witnessed, detachment is one of the keys to self-preservation in this business. Although Marie's method is preferred: 'I go to a lot of bars,' she said in her magnetic drawl. Hear, hear!
Ramita Navai – reporter for Channel 4’s http://www.channel4.com/news/ontv/unreported_world/