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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Risky Business for All Journalists: Foreign Reporting

The recent sexual assault on CBS News' Lara Logan by a Cairo mob while on assignment brought out a lot of nervous discussion about the wisdom of sending female reporters into harm's way.

While there have been mercifully few suggestions that foreign reporting should be limited to men, much of the discussion has been about the need for all reporters - men and women - need to be assured of their safety. Unfortunately, this is not always done.

The foreign desk at all news organizations has always had a special responsibility to make sure that risks are minimized and that correspondents are given the appropriate training in advance of their assignments. At CBC Radio News in the early 1990s, all ten of our foreign correspondents were women. We tried to assure their safety in all situations. In retrospect, while we did not hear of any sexual incidents, I wonder if the correspondents wouldn't mention it for fear they might appear to lack the necessary "toughness" in front of management.

Reporters always need to be ready to handle the worst situations. But as western media have reduced the amount of overseas reporting, I suspect many news organizations have been hesitant about spending the money needed give their reporters the prep they need.

NPR has in the past refused to give its correspondents the kind of training needed for dangerous assignments. Some of this was due to the foreign desk's old school macho approach to reporting. I hope this has changed by now. The CBC has allowed some training but the real leader in this has been the BBC.

This was especially true when the CBC's Melissa Fung was kidnapped on assignment and held for a month by "bandits' in Afghanistan. The CBC won't comment about her pre-assignment training or her post-rescue recovery. According to some in the CBC, more could have been done both before and after her ordeal.

The International News Safety Institute has developed a series of excellent training programs including one specifically for women journalists. Another has been developed by the BBC and is run by women, for women. Both are especially effective, not in avoiding violence entirely, but certainly in dealing with it when it happens.

Judith Matloff explored the issue in 2007 in a powerful and disturbing Columbia Review of Journalism article titled "Unspoken."

Matloff explains: "Women have risen to the top of war and foreign reportage. They run bureaus in dodgy places and do jobs that are just as dangerous as those that men do. But there is one area where they differ from the boys - sexual harassment and rape. Female reporters are targets in lawless places where guns are common and punishment rare. Yet the compulsion to be part of the macho club is so fierce that women often don't tell their bosses. Groping hands and lewd come-ons are stoically accepted as part of the job, especially in places where western women are viewed as promiscuous. War zones in particular seem to invite unwanted advances, and sometimes the creeps can be the drivers, guards, and even the sources that one depends on to do the job. Often they are drunk. But female journalists tend to grit their teeth and keep on working, unless it gets worse." 

The overt violence in Egypt has also elicited quiet anxieties in many newsrooms about reporting in Arab and Muslim countries where sexual oppression and cultural tensions are increasingly directed against western reporters. 

Hopefully, this will not dissuade journalists from reporting from that part of the world. But the psychopathology of the Egyptian mobs indicates that political change and sexual violence are intertwined when foreign reporters in general and female reporters specifically are trying to do their jobs.

Might Al Jazeera have any suggestions about how to handle this? Possibly not, since AJE has so far, not even mentioned the incident.

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