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A career boost? Female journalists talk about how violence affected their jobs

Photo by Andrew Neel / Unsplash

Editor’s note: This article is the fifth in a 12-part series of articles about female journalists who cover violence. It is based on interviews with 35 women working around the globe. Because women were promised anonymity, pseudonyms were used in this series.

For women journalists, violence can be an important teacher.

Reporting the stories of violent events at home and abroad, interviewing victims and survivors, and explaining what happened and why helped women developed skills that made them better journalists and more adept storytellers.

Among the 35 female journalists interviewed for this series, women said they learned from their work the skills needed to talk carefully with someone already traumatized, the nuances of telling many sides of a complicated story, whether with words or images, and the power of compassion.

“What did I gain from this? I gained everything,” said Sarah, a Canadian journalist who worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “How could I possibly be a journalist if I hadn’t witnessed or learned the things I had?”

Covering violence and trauma are frequently part of a journalist’s job because violence is so pervasive in the world. Each year, more than 1 million people lose their lives because of violence, the World Health Organization reports. And when violence occurs, journalists are there to document, to tell the stories of both victims and survivors.

While most of the women interviewed for this series had not received any special training in covering violence, they said they had learned on the job and what they learned had helped them become more competent and more considerate.

Julia, a Belgian journalist who also worked in Africa, said her experiences “helped me to become a better person, a better journalist, to find the right distance without understating people’s experiences. My sensitivity is increased tenfold. . . . I learned how to use it (sensitivity) as a strength and not consider it anymore as a weakness.”

Audra, a Ugandan journalist, said the 19 years she spent covering the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict “molded me to the successful journalist I am today because of its complexity.” Her work has, in turn, helped other journalists. She has been invited to speak about her experiences with students and reporters.

“In a very selfish way, I think it’s made me a better journalist (in terms of) how to speak to people, how to cover these events respectfully and sensitively,” said Caroline, a U.S. reporter who has covered violence in Africa and the Middle East. “I learned a lot about how to talk to people.”

Alima, an Afghani journalist, said that reporting on human rights violations “gives me courage and patience.” And Densia, a reporter who worked in her home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said: “I think my job as a journalist helped me grow my relationship with people.”

Emma, who has covered more than 60 mass shootings in the United States, said her work experience has helped her learn that people affected by violence have different emotional reactions; consequently, she adjusts to each unique situation.

“If it’s somebody who has experienced violence, they tend to be more upbeat and can-do because they’ve survived. . . . If it’s a family member who experienced violence, it is usually because their family member died. It tends to be more difficult to talk to family members. It can get to you.”

Career advancement?

Some journalists said that covering violence had helped their careers. For female journalists, it gave them a chance to prove that women were competent and courageous when colleagues doubted it.

“In journalism, if you work on big stories, then it helps you grow fast because it builds your credibility. I covered those violent events where women don’t like to step forward. It builds my name,” said Adira, a journalist from Pakistan.

Olivia, a U.S. journalist who covered the crime beat in Florida, echoed similar thoughts. “I feel like it’s a really noble thing to report on violent events, and there’s a certain amount of pride you get from being a woman and covering such tough things.”

“I think women get pigeon-holed into covering the ‘female’ topics, like education and health care, and covering crime is stepping out of the heteronormative gender norms,” said Rose, a U.S. journalist who covered crime in North Carolina.

Those women who reported on violence received admiration from colleagues and supervisors—not necessarily because they were women but because they were seen as courageous.

“People do respect you for doing what you’re doing,” said Nora, a U.S. reporter, who covered conflict in the Middle East. “You get a lot of accolades for going off to dangerous places.”

Stella, also a U.S. journalist, covered the crime beat, and her ability to report on trauma helped her get jobs and won praise from her editors who saw her as fearless.

“I think conflict is perceived to be ‘sexier’ than covering business, for example,” said Leah, a U.S. photographer. “It does earn you respect among your peers and, yes, perhaps it did help to some extent while I was doing conflict work.”

Natalie, a U.S. journalist, covered combat, said her work as a war reporter helped her when she later began reporting on national security.

“As a defense reporter, you can only have a certain level of credibility (if) you’ve done it (war reporting) and been there yourself. . . . You truly need to see it yourself,” she said.

While some journalists felt that covering violence—whether crime, conflict, or combat—did help them professionally, they recognized that covering conflict, whether at home or abroad, was a tough job. And while it did mean career advancement for some, they realized the paradox of covering an exciting story that was a tragedy for someone else.

Olivia had only been out of college a few years when she landed a job as the crime beat reporter at a newspaper in Florida. She wrote about child abuse, murders, robberies and car crashes. It was, she said, not a job many people coveted.

“People still treat cops reporting like it’s the newbie’s job. It’s the job they (journalists) take out of college because they can’t find anyone else to do it,” Olivia said. “There’s almost a negative connotation. How long do you have to be on the crime beat before you move up?”

But after a few months on the job, she got her big “break” after the Pulse nightclub shootings, which claimed the lives of 49 people. One of her friends told her, “‘This is the biggest event you’ll ever report on in your career,’ and it did help me professionally.” But, she was not happy. “You almost feel guilty that your claim to fame (is) because some people suffered so you could have a career boost.”

Charlotte had a similar experience. She covered a mass shooting in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, in which a white supremacist shot and killed nine black church members during a prayer meeting, and she covered domestic violence in her home state of South Carolina.

“It’s not to say we’d wish for something like that to happen, but the reality is covering the big story—something like that is helpful,” said Charlotte.

But she acknowledged a “guilt factor” in achieving success because of others’ suffering, but also suggested journalists should not feel responsible.

“That (guilt) is one of the most powerful things,” she said. “It makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong to get a good story out of their pain . . . (but) that’s your job. . . . It’s your job to communicate to the reader the enormity of the impact. . . . It’s ok for this to be a good story for you, even if it advances your career. It’s only because you’ve done a good job.”

Public information, private grief

Journalists recognized the tension between the public’s need to know and the family’s private grief, and they worked to report compassionately.

“You want to tell the story beyond the crime,” said Stella, a U.S. journalist. “It helps them (family, friends) understand why you’re there. If they don’t want to talk, don’t make them.”

Martina, who works in Mexico, said: “I’ve given a lot of thought of who am I writing this for. Who is benefitting? . . . . I want to make sure the person I interview is in a better place, and the audience has real empathy for the person.”

Journalists have been criticized as intrusive during tragedies, but the women interviewed for this series saw their work as necessary to inform the public, not as voyeuristic and certainly not pleasurable.

“I always think there’s something wrong with people who get a charge out of covering crime,” said Stella. “You’re going in people’s worst day. It’s the worst thing that ever happened, and you’re excited about covering it? When I got switched off crime, I was relieved. If I never cover a mass shooting again, I will die happy.”

Journalists said reporting on violence allowed explanation for what often seemed inexplicable.

“It’s very easy to say who was involved, how it happened, but (to) explain why it happened. . . . That’s the main question that needs to be answered,” said Arina, an Estonian journalist.

Nora, a U.S. journalist, said that covering violence in the Middle East gave her insights into the best and worst of people.

“You are drawn because it is challenging and complex. . . . You realize war is covered farther back, not on the front lines, because that’s where the civilians are and that’s where the story is,” Nora said.

Rose, a reporter who covered crime in North Carolina in the United States, said she felt that interviewing crime victims, as well as families and friends, could offer opportunities to make sense out of what happened.

“They tell me the stories of how they were victimized. . . . For a lot of people, talking to me seems to be something positive. When they come to me, they want their stories to be told. They want to shine a light on that issue,” she said.

Violence not essential to success

And journalists agreed that while covering violence might have helping their careers, it was not a pre-requisite for professional success.

“You can be a good journalist and make a name for yourself by just being a brilliant journalist and never going to a war zone,” said Adilah, who has covered violence across the globe.

“I like to think I would have had a brilliant career anyway,” without covering violence, said Elizabeth, a U.S. reporter who has covered the Middle East.

Emma, a U.S. journalist who has covered dozens of mass shootings, said she didn’t believe her work covering trauma had made a big difference in her career “because I’ve got a pretty strong body (of work) that’s not related specifically to violence, and I do a lot of feel-good pieces to balance. However, she acknowledged that covering violence has “kept me in business because there’s a never-ending supply of this stuff going on.”

Tension and storytelling

Tension has long been considered an essential element in good storytelling. “Tension makes life, and the news, interesting,” the American Press Institute said. And often that tension is seen in journalism as stories about conflict, including violence.

A CNN video recapped the top seven international news stories of 2017, and all included some element of violence, from the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the economic and political unrest in Venezuela, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and gas attacks on citizens in Syria.

Stories of violence, whether man-made or natural disasters, tend to dominate local, national and international news. However, Bisi Daniels, writing in the Nigerian newspaper This Day, said that the question of whether media are reporting too much violence needs to be re-thought. “Maybe we have to flip the question to get it right. Is there too much violence in the world now?”

Next: Female journalists who cover violence talk about their work and family.

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