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Filing from the warzone - the dangers of conflict reporting

Conflict reporting has always been the most dangerous branch of journalism - but in the changing political landscape of recent years, has it become even more so?

Despite what the response to the Leveson inquiry may have lead us to believe, one of the biggest threats to press freedom today remains violence against journalists. Already eleven journalists have been wounded and three killed in the Gaza area just two weeks on from Israel’s launch of "Operation Pillar of Defence". These harrowing statistics, brought to light by a Reporters Without Borders report, once again bring home the incredible risks taken by this most dangerous division of journalism. But in an age of ever-changing media and technologies - has conflicting reporting become safer or less so?

“When you’re looking at Gaza, you’re looking at an incredibly densely populated place, a place that really has no front line… you don’t know where the next attack is going to come from” notes Sarah Topol, a freelance journalist who was the 2012 recipient of the Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism, speaking at City University’s panel discussion on the 29 November. An experienced journalist who has reported widely during the Arab Springs uprisings, she notes that the Israel-Palestine conflict is notoriously unsafe for reporters. In Gaza she explains, “ I felt like I was operating much more on a whim, or based on luck, because you just weren’t sure were the Israelis were going to hit next”.  

As a freelancer, Topol was in a unique position being entirely responsible for her own safety, with no backing from a news organisation or employer. What measures can a journalist take to minimise risks in such circumstances? The first, non-negotiable step is to ensure you provide your own, extensive security equipment, she believes; “If you’re not going to invest in yourself, then no news organisation should invest in you” For Topol, the minimum includes buying her own insurance, flak jackets, gas masks, and providing these for translators working alongside her and insisting they wear them as well., “If you want to do it, then you have to do it responsibly because you bring everyone you know into the war zone with you, your family, your friends”.

Big organisations, of course, have more resources to devote specifically to security measures. Sarah Whitehead, head of International News at Sky, explains that personal safety is always top of the agenda for Sky reports in conflict areas. As well as extensive equipment and protective clothing, her journalists are trained medically and undergo psychological training to be able to “spot the first signs of stress”. Additionally, she often deploys security advisors alongside her journalistic teams as they head into conflict zones. They can be an invaluable asset, understanding as they do, military strategies and equipment, often having knowledge of the local area and extensive medical training which can be life-saving in areas where doctors and hospitals are simply inaccessible. However, not every conflict report necessitates a security advisor, “they are brilliant people to have in the right circumstances but they are passengers in the wrong ones”.

City University's 'Reporting on Conflict' panel discussion, 29th November 2012. From right to left - Sarah Whitehead, Prof. Howard Tumber, Sarah Topol, James Rodgers, Ibrahim Adwan. (Photo credit: Brianne O'Brien)

Recent conflicts – notably those connected with the Arab Spring – have given rise to a prominent new type of reporting – the civilian journalist. “An awful lot of the stuff we’re doing at the moment on Syria comes that way” agrees Whitehead. Of course, this has brought problems of its own. How, after all is it possible to verify accurately the footage obtained from ground-level footage from citizen journalists?

“It’s a whole range of really basic journalism skills” she explains. Sky have their own desk dedicated to verifying footage, “we’re looking at where its come from, what it looks like, what we know about that area – weather, season, all those really basic checks, and then we try to find the people who posted it. And we do it as rigorously as we can. But we do still say – very frustratingly, and very annoyingly I’m sure for people who are watching it, “We can’t verify this material” a lot of the time”. Despite risks, however, she still concedes that "nothing beats eye witness reporting".

A highly practical and effective was to reduce the danger of conflict reporting is for different news agencies to collaborate and pool their resources. However, considering the fact that these are different companies working competitively against one another – to what extent can that be achieved? James Rodgers - a lecturer at City University, and former BBC foreign correspondent - concedes it’s a difficult issue, working together naturally increases safety, but “if you’re going to take the risk and go there [to the conflict zone], the desire to get a scoop doesn’t necessarily diminish either”.

“I think one of the great things last year at the height of Arab Springs was that there was a tremendous sharing of safety information” notes Whitehead. Whilst conceding different media companies are “super-competitive” about stories, she emphasises that there is a huge amount of sharing between Sky and other news channels on any issue and advice regarding the safety of their journalists.

Perhaps the most important issue for reporting safely, however, comes down to the character of the reporter themselves. Whitehead emphasises that a calm personality is absolutely crucial; “if someone panics – they put the whole team in danger”.

Topol believes experience is mandatory,  “You need to know how to do journalism to begin to be able to do journalism in a conflict zone - It is so much harder, because you have less time and you are under a lot more pressure, and you have to produce the same kind of in-depth reporting that you would [under peaceful circumstances]”.

Despite the huge advances in communication and protective equipment, Rodgers believes conflict reporting is more dangerous now than ever. “In the Cold War, at least you knew who was on who’s side” he notes. Now, the situation is much more confusing. Media systems and news companies have altered dramatically in our digital age and political and diplomatic situations have become fractured. The result is “multi-sided conflicts which require multi-sided reporting”.

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.



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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.