Gender matters in war reporting

Being a journalist in war zones and armed conflicts is becoming increasingly dangerous. Most of the journalists killed in the field are men, but the concern is about the security of their female colleagues.

“Patriarchal structures are often strengthened during war and conflict, and this may also affect journalists working in conflict areas and reporting from wars. Women experience that they are not allowed to take part in their own security assessment to the same extent as their male colleagues,” says Marte Høiby.

She and Professor Rune Ottosen have interviewed journalists and editors in seven countries on four continents.

“Gender was addressed in the interviews we conducted in Norway and in the Philippines, and I have developed this material within my PhD research,” she says.

“More dangerous to report from wars”

On average, one journalist is killed each week some place in the world. Media workers are also highly exposed to violence, threats, chicanery, illegal arrests, and kidnappings. Very few of these injustices are investigated, however, and the perpetrators normally walk without being prosecuted.

“Most of the journalists and editors we’ve interviewed said that reporting from conflict zones has become increasingly dangerous. The wars are more complex, and it is not as easy to distinguish between the different parts of the conflicts on the front line as it used to be,” says Høiby.

Many women have the experience of being surpassed by their male colleagues, who get the dangerous assignments.

At the same time, the journalists have to a large degree lost their status as neutral.

“The journalists have become targets in their own right. They used to be able to use their status as press for protection and as a means to communicate independently from the different parts of the conflict. Today it seems that more of them choose to lay low.”

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Assaults on the Tahrir square

However, it is part of the media’s social responsibilities to cover wars and conflicts, and many journalists want to work in the field regardless of the risks. This is where many women have the experience of being surpassed by their male colleagues, who get the dangerous assignments.

Marte Høiby is a Phd.Candidate at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, HiOA. Photo: Siri Lindstad

“The media houses of course have to make security assessments, and there are clearly cases in which women may be more exposed to violence than men. Female journalists become targets both because of their work and because they challenge stereotypical gender roles,” says Høiby.

“During the demonstrations at the Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, the organisation Reporters Without Borders issued an official warning to the media houses asking them to protect their female colleagues. They had observed organised harassment and sexual violence against women on the square, both against journalists and women who promoted women’s rights.”

“And many would presumably agree that such a warning was called for…?”

“Absolutely,” says Høiby.

“The question remains why such warnings and extra protection are so often directed towards women when more than ninety per cent of the registered journalists killed each year are men. We know that it is dangerous for women, but this does not mean that men do not need the same extra protection. Moreover, we know that male journalists are also exposed to violence, which can also be sexual, but there are probably many unrecorded cases here.”


The Pakistani journalist Umar Cheema is an exception in this case. He has explained how he was kidnapped, beaten, and sexually abused by unknown assailants in 2010. He believes that they were acting at the request of Pakistani intelligence.

Høiby refers to another kidnapping case, which took place in the Philippines.  

“Sexual violence is tabooed no matter who it affects.”

“In 2008, the TV reporter Ces Drillon was kidnapped by the rebel group Abu Sayyaf Group together with her photographer Jimmy Encarnacion and her guide Angelo Valderrama. They were let go after nine days of captivity. Philippine editors that we interviewed explained how they became much more restrictive in terms of sending female journalists into the same area following this kidnapping case. There was little focus on the fact that two of those who were kidnapped were men, however.”

When questions were asked about how the three were treated while in captivity, there was much focus on whether Drillon had been victim of sexual violence or not, even after she refuted this.

“Sexual violence is tabooed no matter who it affects, but in many places it is perhaps more tabooed if men are exposed to it. And if you report it or talk about it, you’re showing a vulnerability which may conflict with what is expected of you as a war journalist, a role in which you’re supposed to be tough and handling things regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman.” 

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“Women consider the risks”

And this does not only concern whether female journalists should have access to the same assignments as their male colleagues, also when it comes to dangerous assignments.

“There are many reasons why female journalists’ participation in the coverage of war and conflict is important. One reason is that they may get access to sources that men can’t get to, particularly in cultures where the men and women live separately.”

Høiby points to findings indicating that female journalists are often well prepared and take precautions when they are reporting from dangerous areas.

“There is quite a lot of research on gender and risk taking, and in general it looks as if women take fewer risks than men. This is not to say that this necessarily applies to war journalists; I’ve spoken to female reporters who say that they have developed good strategies in order to protect themselves when they work in conflict zones,” she says.

“It can be simple measures such as wearing a pair of good sneakers. If something should happen, the journalist is able to run fast. Bringing a shawl to cover yourself with in countries where this is part of the culture can be wise in order to avoid standing out from the crowd – and sometimes absolutely necessary. Some women make sure they never meet the eyes of men they don’t know that they’re passing on the street.”

“Muslim women in particular, are almost exclusively represented as passive victims.”

She says that women in general assess what may be smart and safe conduct, perhaps to a larger extent than men do.

“They don’t see why they should be less included than their male colleagues in the decision making concerning their own security, where they can go, and what they can cover.”

Black holes

Høiby’s article «Sexual Violence against Journalists in Conflict Zones» is one of the contributions in a recently published anthology called Gendering War And Peace Reporting. Some Insights  Some Missing Links. Berit von der Lippe, Professor of rhetorics at Department of Communication and Culture at BI Norwegian Business School has edited the book together with Rune Ottosen.

“Our point of departure was an international conference on war journalism and gender in the autumn 2015. We realised that there are many “missing links” and black holes when it comes to gender and war journalism, and we wanted to point some of these out,” says Berit von der Lippe.

Berit von der Lippe is Professor of rhetorics at BI. Photo: Privat

How is femininity and masculinity represented in the media’s coverage of war and conflict, but also in peace and peace processes? What are the benefits and disadvantages of being a female or a male war reporter? What stereotypes are easily associated with gender and war, and what are the best ways of challenging these in journalism?

“Although we’ve come a long way here in the west in terms of how we talk about gender, we can observe an essentialisation in the coverage of women and men in much of the war journalism, for instance in reports from Afghanistan,” says von der Lippe.

“Muslim women in particular, are almost exclusively represented as passive victims and rarely as efficient actors in the reported stories. We also see how Kurdish women who have fought alongside their men for a long time are represented as exotic rather than as liberation soldiers.”

And although she may agree with Høiby that female journalists get access to (female) sources that their male colleagues won’t have access to, this does not necessarily mean that the representations of men and women have become more nuanced.

“This may seem strange considering the discussion we’ve had here at home concerning our own war history and how it is narrated, where women to a large degree have been ignored,” says von der Lippe.

Translated by Cathinka Dahl Hambro

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About the research

Marte Høiby is a PhD. Candidate at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences. In 2014, she conducted a research project financed by the Norwegian UNESCO commission on the safety of journalists, together with Professor Rune Ottosen.

Høiby has written the article «Sexual Violence against Journalists in Conflict Zones» which is part of the anthology Gendering War and Peace Reporting. Some Insights - Some Missing Links. Editors of the book are Berit von der Lippe, Professor of rhetorics at the Department of Communication and Culture at BI and Rune Ottosen, Professor of journalism at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at HiOA.

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