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Women at the Front—Two Reporters Join a Sisterhood

| September 8, 2011

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Sara Sidner in Afghanistan; photo: CNN

At danger spots in the Middle East and elsewhere, CNN reporters Sara Sidner and Arwa Damon lend their particular perspectives, in a tradition of war correspondents who happen to be women.

Night after night they reported “live” for CNN as the Libyan revolution unfolded, one in flak jacket and helmet, the other with her trademark keffiyeh encircling her neck, both of them calm and cogent amid the sounds of war.  With their stellar reporting, Sara Sidner and Arwa Damon joined the ranks of women war correspondents whose reporting changed the way we understand war and its human toll.

Sidner began reporting as a student while earning a degree in telecommunications from the University of Florida. After stints in Dallas and San Francisco she began her CNN career in New Delhi where she quickly garnered worldwide attention for her coverage of the Mumbai terrorist attacks.  She also covered the Pakistan floods, the Haiti earthquake, the 2004 tsunami, and elections in Afghanistan.  Throughout it all, she remained knowledgeable and unflappable in the face of danger.

Arwa Damon, Boston-born and a Skidmore graduate, was raised in Morocco and Turkey. Fluent in Arabic, Turkish, and French, she has been covering the Middle East for CNN since 2006.  She reported the conflict in Iraq and the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, and she was the first TV reporter permitted inside the Khamiya women’s prison in Bagdad. She shared the appalling conditions for women incarcerated there. She also showed the world a five-year old Iraqi child named Youssif who was badly burned in an attack. By telling the women’s and children’s stories she put a human face on war’s most vulnerable victims.  (Youssif’s story led to him receiving medical treatment in the United States.) Later, Damon covered the Egyptian uprising from Cairo before going to Libya.

Sidner and Damon follow in the tradition of women reporters and war correspondents like Christiane Amanpour, who was recognized for her CNN coverage of the Persian Gulf War in 1990 as well as for her reporting from war zones in countries like Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Rwanda.  Often she, too, wore a flak jacket and a keffiyeh while filing hard-hitting reports that gave viewers new insight into what occurs in a war zone.  “I remember once doing a live shot from a so-called famine camp in Ethiopia,” she said, while keynoting the Edward R. Murrow awards.  “I was showing a man … explaining how ill he was, and it was a live camera and all of a sudden I realized that he was dying. And I didn’t know …  how to get the camera away, what to do that would not sully what was happening in real life … the weeping that we hear—children, women, even men. And these images and these sounds are always with me.”

Women like Martha Gellhorn, Margaret Bourke-White, Virginia Cowles, and others who told the stories of World War II are part of the tradition that Sidner, Damon, and Amanpour now represent.  These women changed forever how war and conflict are reported. It took courage and cunning to achieve what they did.  Gellhorn, for example, crossed the English Channel hiding in the lavatory of a hospital ship the day after the Normandy Invasion. Once she had waded ashore with stretcher bearers, she came under enemy fire but she got her story.  Similarly, Bourke-White finagled her way onto a dangerous bombing mission in North Africa, later calling it “a mission of death.”  (For a compelling account of WWII women correspondents see The Women Who Wrote the War by Nancy Caldwell Sorel.)

During the war, women reporters challenged the belief that women should not witness battle or report on it.  When they finally got the chance to file, their stories differed notably from male accounts.  “Think in terms of million,” Virginia Cowles wrote to describe hordes of fleeing Parisians in June 1940.  “Think of noise and confusion, of the thick smell of petrol, of the scraping of automobile gears, of shouts, wails, curses, tears.”  Women wrote of men in hospitals who had fled invading armies but they also talked with people on trains and in their homes.  The portraits they painted were as much about civilians as soldiers.

During the Vietnam War women went to the battlefields as reporters in unprecedented numbers. According to author and journalism professor Joyce Hoffmann, approximately 300 women were accredited from 1965 to 1975, although only 70 actually published or broadcast their work.  Despite General William Westmoreland’s belief that women would be a distraction on the battlefield, the troops welcomed them.  Many of the women, or “girl reporters” as they were called, were esteemed among the men with whom they saw action, and their stories again enriched public understanding of the human costs of war. One of these women, Dickey Chapelle, died on patrol with U.S. Marines, and two other journalists, Elizabeth Pond and Kate Webb, were captured and held prisoner by the Viet Cong. (They were later released unharmed.) Even so, and despite receiving some of journalism’s most important awards, the women who covered the Vietnam War remain largely unrecognized.

Does gender play a role in war reporting?  Two psychiatrists explored that question for Harvard's Nieman Foundation through extensive interviews with war correspondents (two-thirds of whom were male). They concluded that female war journalists are not more likely than their male counterparts to suffer psychological distress.  They also suggest that “female war journalists are more likely to be single and better educated than their male colleagues.” They are “a highly select group.  It is not by chance that these women have gravitated to the frontlines of war. … The predictable 9-to-5 daily grind … is not a lifestyle they are likely to embrace.”

Correspondent Marie Colvin, cited in the Nieman report on covering the civil war in Sri Lanka, would likely agree.  Assessing the risks she took she wrote, “Was I stupid?  Stupid I would feel writing a column about the dinner party I attended last night. … For my part, the next war I cover, I’ll be more awed than ever by the quiet bravery of civilians who endure more than I ever will.  They must stay where they are. I can come home to London.”

It’s a sentiment, no doubt, that Sara Sidner and Arwa Damon can appreciate.

[Picture 2: Arwa Damon, with Youssif; photo: CNN]

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