Women War Correspondents: They Are Different in So Many Ways

By Feinstein, Anthony; Sinyor, Mark | Nieman Reports, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Women War Correspondents: They Are Different in So Many Ways


Feinstein, Anthony, Sinyor, Mark, Nieman Reports


"Caring about what you see may well be the key to good reporting, for it means you look closer, and you look to find out why. The much-bruited idea that we are all damaged by grim experience is countered surely by the idea that we are all changed by experience, but not necessarily for the worse."

--Kate Adie, BBC, from her autobiography, "The Kindness of Strangers"

Reporting from a war zone is increasingly hazardous. Mortality figures for journalists covering conflict during the last century reveal that in the Great War of 1914-1918, two journalists lost their lives. In the six years of World War II, 66 died, 17 died during the Korean War, and 58 journalists were killed during the prolonged Vietnam conflict. In Iraq, the Vietnam casualties have more than doubled in a conflict that has not yet ended.

This troubling progression is not happening because Fallujah is any more dangerous than the trenches in World War I. Rather this rise reflects a fundamental change in the way that war is now fought; warring factions often regard journalists as targets.

The heightened danger and ubiquitous threat that journalists confront carries significant psychological challenges. Exposure to life-threatening events creates potential risk for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and substance abuse, and journalists are not immune. Data collected from a group of 218 frontline journalists who worked in zones of conflict for 15 years, on average, revealed rates of PTSD five times higher than those found in the general population. Moreover, rates of depression and alcohol abuse in this group well exceeded those found in journalists who had spent their careers far removed from the danger of distant conflicts.

War journalists are, however, a diverse group. A close look at the data reveals that war photographers, for example, have higher rates of PTSD symptoms than print reporters or producers.

And freelance journalists have more depression than peers who are employed by major news organizations.

Gender: What Role Does It Play?

While exploring such differences we wondered whether gender played any role in the development of psychological distress. To those unfamiliar with the epidemiology of psychiatric illness, that question might beg another: Why is this of interest? The answer: Many factors influence a person's mental health and gender differences, in particular, lead to predictable variations in the rates of common psychiatric conditions.

Studies of tens of thousands of people from 17 countries demonstrate that geography is less salient than gender in this regard. Whether journalists live in the United States or Japan, Turkey or Taiwan, they are more likely to develop depression or anxiety if they are female. (This finding applies not only in times of peace.) Female civilians in war torn Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Yugoslavia, Nepal and Afghanistan also were found to have higher rates of depression and anxiety. Data collected by the U.S. military show female soldiers to be more susceptible to psychological problems than their male counterparts.

Knowing this, we turned to our database of journalists whose histories we've collected over the past decade. Even before probing the characteristics of their behavior, we looked carefully at demographic comparisons:

* Gender: Three quarters of these journalists are male. We weren't surprised since there are solid neurochemical and evolutionary reasons why men are more likely to gravitate to risky environments than are women.

* Marriage: The marital data revealed unexpected findings. By the time people reach their late 30s (the average age for males and females in our sample), more women than men are usually married. This is not true with war journalists. While most of the men in our sample were married, the majority of women were single.

* Education: Female frontline journalists are better educated than their male colleagues. …

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