In Ukraine, female war reporters build on legacy of pioneers
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Clarissa Ward interrupted her live TV report on Ukrainian refugees to help a distraught older man, then a woman, down a steep and explosion-mangled path, gently urging them on in their language.
A day later, Lynsey Addario, a photographer for The New York Times, captured a grim image of a Russian mortar attack’s immediate outcome: the bodies of a mother and her two children crumpled on a road, amid their suitcase, backpacks and a pet carrier.
The memorable reports illustrate both the skill and gutsiness of female journalists serving as eyewitnesses to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and the way their presence — hard-won after overcoming ingrained notions of why women shouldn’t cover combat — has changed the nature of war reporting.
They cover the tactics of war, but give equal measure to its toll.
“People are so exhausted, they can barely walk,” Ward told viewers in her report. “It’s just an awful, awful scene. And they’re the lucky ones.”
The author of “You Don’t Belong Here,” a 2021 book that profiles three pioneering women who covered the Vietnam War, said there’s “absolutely no doubt that the reporting is what I would call more humane, looking at the human side of war.”
Elizabeth Becker argues that Frances FitzGerald of the U.S., Kate Webb of Australia and Catherine Leroy of France were foundational to modern war reporting. Arriving in Southeast Asia on their own dime, without a staff job and little or no journalism experience, they broke the male grip on war reporting with daring and innovation.
Traditionally, “the coverage was the battlefield, which is important,” said award-winning journalist Becker, a Cambodian war correspondent in the 1970s. She said it took newcomer FitzGerald to ask, “’OK, what does this mean in terms of the Vietnamese and the villages?’”
War reporting is “a sense of mission, it’s a sense of purpose, it’s a sense of being able to tell a story,” said Christiane Amanpour, the London-born chief international anchor for CNN. “And women are really very good at it, it seems.”
It’s also a matter of logic, said Holly Williams, the Istanbul-based correspondent for CBS News on assignment in Ukraine.
“I’m acutely aware of the fact that if you don’t tell women’s stories, you’re missing at least half of the picture,” said the Australian-born Williams, who has reported on conflicts in Asia and the Middle East.
Ward, who has hopscotched across those regions, worked for CBS News prior to joining CNN and, before that, was based in Moscow and Beijing for ABC News.
“Often women do have a different perspective on war, and for a long time that was not really at the forefront of a lot of coverage,” Ward said. She strives to include “the humanity behind the story, the experience of ordinary people who are living in war zones. To me, that is equally as important as the military component.”
The prominence of TV correspondents and the reach of their outlets adds to their impact. Oprah Winfrey offered online praise of network reporters “risking their lives to show the world the truth.”
Many male colleagues also contribute nuanced reporting, as ABC News veteran Martha Raddatz and others noted. But Raddatz recalls a not-so-distant time when men tended to “love the equipment, love the airplanes.”
Ward and and other female journalists routinely tip their cap to their predecessors, including FitzGerald, and praise recent trailblazers, including Amanpour.
“I think my generation and myself, we were perhaps the last line of the rare woman foreign correspondent,” Amanpour said. In every form of media it’s “exploded into a very female friendly profession.”
But parity has yet to be fully or widely achieved. Ward said that the growing number of female TV correspondents belies what she described as “a fairly male-dominated profession in general.”
“Don’t forget, the person in front of the camera is one person. Then you have, for TV, four people holding the camera, behind the camera, and most of them are still men,” she said.
In U.S. journalism overall, men retain a numerical advantage over women even in a changing media industry, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. While the number of people working in any facet of print, online or video journalism fell by nearly 17% between 2008 and 2018, men remained a majority at the end of the decade at 64%, “on par with their share in 2008” of 60%, Pew found.
Female journalists face daunting challenges in certain regions, including “many parts of the developing world, and certainly in the Islamic world and other areas of what I call the patriarchy,” Amanpour said.
Yonat Friling, a Jerusalem-based senior producer for Fox News Channel who worked in Ukraine with correspondent Trey Yingst, is aware of how opportunities can differ. In 2004, she was on the international desk for an Israeli TV station when she asked her boss to be moved to field producer.
“He told me, ‘This is a job for men. Only men can do that,’” Friling recalled. She left the next year and joined Fox News in her chosen role.
Family needs and concerns add to the burden of war reporting.
NBC News correspondent Erin McLaughlin said that before Russia struck at Ukraine, the threat of what might happen made her parents worry more than they had over her previous assignments, including in Iraq.
Ward, who is married and has two children, expressed regret about missing her son’s 4th birthday while in Ukraine.
“I’m not going to pretend this isn’t hard. But I also wouldn’t be anywhere else right now,” she said.
Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar contributed to this report.