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Why they do it: Female journalists talk about covering violence

Photo from United Nations

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a 12-part series about female journalists who cover violence. It is based on interviews with 35 female journalists working around the globe. Women asked that their real names not be used, so pseudonyms are used here.

For women journalists, covering violence is not something they want to do.

It is something they have to do.

Motivated by concern and determination, journalists say their job is, not only to chronicle violent events, but to explain them.

“My main questions have not been so much what happened but why? Otherwise, it’s pointless,” said Arina, a journalist in Estonia.

In addition to explaining the “why,” journalists want to highlight the “who” and tell the stories of people affected by conflict and trauma.

“It’s not that I aspire to be great. It’s more, ‘Do you believe that each of us is here for a purpose?’ I do. We’re all born with a purpose. Even if a child is born and suffers terribly and dies very young—people like me find their purpose,” said Claire, a journalist from South Africa who has covered violence in her home country and abroad.

For Claire, one of 35 women interviewed for this series on female journalists and violence, their work is their calling. They were committed to telling the stories of those who are unable to speak for themselves. They used words such as “love,” “passion,” “duty” and “responsibility” to describe their jobs. And while most said they knew they didn’t have to take on difficult assignments, they chose to do so because they saw their work as a way to help others.

“My strength is in doing what I’ve done for so many years—spending time with people, learning, understanding, my capacity to give back to these people real time and respect, and put that in a form that is memorable and meaningful and stays with people,” said Claire. “If that means I have to put up with all kinds of things—corporate politics, or no real food, or sleeping in the dirt—I’m happy to do that. That is a gift for me.”

As Claire noted, the work carries both personal rewards and sacrifices. Women journalists say their work is physically and emotionally taxing. It separates them from family and loved ones. There is little glamor and, for many, the pay is low.

And their work is dangerous.

Zara, a Bangladeshi journalist, was out of work for five months after she was beaten by protestors while covering a riot. But “within all these struggles and hardship I never felt I should stop doing what I’m doing because journalism is like oxygen to me. The way we cannot live without oxygen, I can’t live without journalism.”

Women journalists have varied motivations for reporting, photographing, and editing the news. But all see information as a power than can be transformative, changing government policies and individual lives.

Motivation to cover a topic

For some journalists, motivations to do their jobs grew from absences: They were motivated to cover an issue because they saw that it was missing from news reports.

Anna, a U.S. journalist, wanted to cover combat. She did, but not without a struggle with her editors.

“I was begging them to send me to Iraq, and they didn’t have the money.” When Anna Nicole Smith, a former model and stripper, died in 2007 from a drug overdose, her news organization was willing to fund coverage of that.

“I said, ‘This is bullshit.’ That’s when I quit my job. My friends and family helped me, and I bought my own body armor. I literally just bought a plane ticket. I called the military and said, ‘I’m coming,’ and I did. I thought I’d be there for a month or two, but I ended up staying six months.”

Ava, also a U.S. journalist, was working in New York when she decided to carve out a beat for herself covering the military. “I felt like it was my duty to tell people we’re at war (in Iraq and Afghanistan), and you need to pay attention to that. And it shocked me to no end that people didn’t follow it.”

Elizabeth, a U.S. journalist, said she felt her long-term coverage of war had affected her emotionally, but “I felt the danger and discomfort of the potentially soul-destroying nature of seeing so much destruction was a necessary part of letting people know what war is about.”

Lillian, a U.S. journalist, began reporting on stories of human trafficking in Latin America because “it was a story that kept coming up over and over and over again, and it never got covered, and it never got covered from a woman’s point of view.”

When Rose, also a U.S. journalist, began reporting extensively on sex trafficking and sex crimes, she saw it as a way to bring hidden issues to the public. “There’s such a shame and stigma, a lot of people don’t want to talk to you,” Rose said. “There’s a lot of bad writing on these topics, but I try to be compassionate and get the true story out.”

Motivation to cover a region

Some journalists wanted their work to illuminate problems in a particular country or region.

Asya has worked in Iraq, Pakistan, and now Turkey. “I choose the Middle East, partly because this is the place of heritage. I grew up in the west, but I am from the east. If I can translate one to the other, then any little piece of the jigsaw I can contribute is of value. . . . The stories of this region are just so important, and they have reverberations beyond our borders.”

Falak, a photographer in Armenia, said her job allows her to be creative, but she also feels a need to tell others what is happening in her home country. “I want to be here, to document this time in which I’m living. It’s a transitional moment in my country. People may not want to see these pictures, but photographs live for years.”

Emine said she continues her work as an online journalist because she wants to help her countrymen and women in Turkey.

“The country is divided,” she said. “People like me believe the politicians have forgotten about the people. . . . They really forgot people. They forgot what their job is supposed to be. . . . It’s all about their egos and their interests. . . . Even though the politicians are doing their best to divide us . . . we the people could do better to stay together and stay united.”

Audra, a journalist in Uganda, began covering the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel force, because she didn’t see many media stories on the conflict.

“I decided to make the conflict known by highlighting it because I was also affected by the war . . . and I had already lost too many relatives in the war. . . .”

The United Nations estimates that from 1987 through 2012, the LRA killed more than 100,000 people, abducted as many as 100,000 children, and displaced 2.5 million civilians.

“Throughout my job, I never questioned my career as a journalist because it was my choice, and I loved doing it,” Audra said.

Other journalists also wanted to highlight a wrong in their country, and they saw journalism as a way to call attention to the need for changes.

Jessa, a journalist working in Myanmar, said: “I feel the world needs to know what is happening in my country. . . . I am more convinced that the role of a journalist is crucial in a closed country as we are the main source of information to the outside world.”

Claire, who grew up in South Africa during apartheid, said she became a journalist because “I wanted to know. I wanted to understand. . . . We (citizens) knew things were being manipulated (by the government). I wanted to know the truth . . . and I wanted to do something about it.”

Denisa, a journalist who worked in her home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said she believed her work helped people understand an internal conflict that claimed the lives of five million people from 1994 to 2003.

“That’s the thing to be a good journalist. You cannot say, ‘I don’t want to go there.’ . . . When you’re a journalist, you’re a witness for people who can’t be there. . . . Just ask questions everyone wants to know . . . You have the opportunity to ask for others,” Denisa said.

For one journalist, her work was not about her home country, but a country they felt a kinship to. Isabelle left the United States to work as a photographer in Yemen. “The country really broke my heart,” she said. “I went after the revolution (in 2011), then country became much more unstable. . . . It still hurt me more because I care so much about the country and the people.”

A commitment to people

Journalists’ motivations also were to tell stories of people who were not able to gain easy access to the media or who did not frequently receive media attention.

“Human stories … I wanted to be the voice to those people who did not have a voice,” said Esin, a journalist in Pakistan. “Each time I would cover violence, it would make me more determined to be the voice (of those) on the receiving end. That’s how we fight back the violence.”

Alima, a journalist working in her home country of Afghanistan, wanted to audiences to hear “the voice of women—for the national and international community to know what is going on for women in Afghanistan.”

Mary, who works for an online news site in the Philippines, covers economic violence, the violence between institutions and individuals that results from poverty—for example, conflicts between indigenous people and police. Her goal, she said, is to “hear their (citizens’) stories and amplify their voices.”

Emma, a U.S. journalist who has covered more than 60 mass shootings, said she seeks to tell the stories of victims and survivors in “a very respectful and truthful way. I feel somehow this is adding to the body of knowledge about the human condition and why this happens.”

Other journalists, including Asya, also brought a strong sense of duty to their work.

“My job, as I see it, is to serve as a megaphone and to report what’s happening. . . . I’m not an activist. I’m a reporter, and I don’t cross that line,” said Asya. Journalism is a form of public service, she said, “which is the definition of what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Asya, who has been threatened for her work in the Middle East, added: “I won’t be cowered by these people, as long as what I’m saying is true.”

Claire said she works to provide citizens with information about their government’s activities. “A journalist’s job is to go out and expose those things.” It’s up to the citizens, she said, to “make better choices, make it right.

“If people know, if some terrible injustice is happening, people stand up and do the right thing. If that sounds very idealistic, I guess it is,” Claire said.

The balance: Adrenalin and altruism

Journalists acknowledged that their jobs were exciting. Most said they could not imagine doing any other kind work. Yet, they also said the adrenalin rush they got from their jobs was tempered by their altruistic goals to use words and images to inform readers and viewers about pressing issues.

Martina, a journalist working in Mexico, said her starting point for all assignments is asking whether what she does is helpful.

“When I go do a story, I always ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this? Am I doing this to help this person because I want the story to be told or because it’s an adventure?’ I never want to get high off other people’s suffering.

“Ultimately, if you do journalism right, you are helping other humans. It is the ultimate act of telling someone else’s story,” Martina said.

Rose, a U.S. journalist, said she felt her work reporting on crime has the potential to generate change. “I really believe there will always be terrible people, but I think we can make the institutions better and the way we deal with crime and crime victims.”

Olivia, a U.S. journalist who also covered crime, said: “The inner part of me would say I really am addicted to the adrenalin of breaking news, but the other part of me is that I feel like I’m making a difference with every story I write. . . . When I write about a kidnapping or a shooting, I can inspire legislative reform or I can inspire someone to be careful on a certain road, more so than happy stories.”

Adilah, a British based journalist who has worked in the Middle East, said she does not consider herself altruistic, but she added: “There is the feeling you are trying to expose bad and get a story out there. That’s the main reason you do it.”

Some journalists saw that the stories they covered actually had helped others. Charlotte, a journalist working in the United States, wrote a series of stories about domestic violence, which led to changes in laws and the construction of home for battered women. Audra, who covered the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict in Uganda, said she, too, saw that journalism could curb violence.

“When I realized the impact of good journalism on the conflict, I made up my mind to report the war until peace returned to my homeland,” Audra said. “My reporting and that of the other journalists later played a big role in the return of peace to that region.”

And sometimes, journalists hoped for change eventually, even if they didn’t see it immediately.

Lillian works in Latin America, reporting on immigration.

“This has nothing to do with satisfaction or adrenalin,” she said. “This has to do with human rights and justice.”

Her goal, she said, is to “produce work that is meaningful and has a purpose and helps people understand each other. In my role as a journalist, I view myself as a watchdog. . . . I try to be very mindful about whose voices are highlighted, why they’re highlighted. When it comes to violence, being along the (U.S.-Mexico) border, it’s inevitable you cover certain crimes, but there’s larger issues related to (it).”

Idealism meets realism

Some journalists said that changing the world was a lofty goal but not necessarily a realistic one.

Nora, a U.S. journalist who covered the Middle East, said her job gave her self-satisfaction, but idealism was balanced with practicality.

“It’s exhilarating, there’s no doubt it. You conquered it (the assignment), you did it, you know how to do it,” said. “But you get far down your path as a journalist, (and) you realize you are never going to change the world. Witnessing is what you get, and that’s what you do.”

Isabelle, also a U.S. journalist, agreed. “Maybe in your heart of hearts, you’d hope something would change, but you know realistically, you can just tell the story.”

Asya shared a similar perspective about her work in the Middle East.

“I’m one person. I can what I can do,” she said. “.I’m not an NGO (non-governmental organization), a government, a politician. I . . . . I don’t have some bright-eyed view. . . . My goal is to help people understand what’s happening in a place. . . . Journalism may not change the world. When it does, it’s ok.”

Olivia, whose work included reporting on the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shootings that claimed the lives of 49 people, hoped her work sparked change, but admitted her work was hard.

“You have to be so brave. I think I started (my career) with the mindset of, ‘They’ll tell me what I need to know,’ but you have to dig and you have to be tough,” Olivia said. “I got into this thinking I wanted to save the world, but sometimes you save the day, but people hate you.”

Some journalists worried that their reporting had harmed, not helped, in the ways they hoped.

Hannah, a journalist in Uganda, covered domestic violence and wondered if her stories sometimes exacerbated women’s safety.

Audra, also a journalist in Uganda, said the media’s focus on killings at the height of the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency, said the “loser-and-winner reporting style” may have “prolonged the violence.”

Stella, a U.S. journalist, blames herself for the death of a source. She wrote a story about a single father who struggled to take care of his family. People in the community helped him, and he, in turn, helped others. But one of the people he helped killed him. She feels her story and the publicity the man received caused his death. “I remember the editor calling me . . . and said, ‘You’ve got to keep your emotions out of it.’”

Personal rewards

While journalists hoped their work might help others, they also chose their careers because they thought the work would make them feel satisfied and fulfilled.

The personal motivations that led women to journalism were varied. Some women knew from the time they were children, as young as 8 years old, that they knew they wanted to be journalists.

Some women worked on newspapers in secondary school. Claire began working for a local newspaper in high school, counting bodies at the morgue before the police arrived in apartheid-era South Africa. Emine became a journalist after completing her master’s degree. She was interested in foreign affairs and began working at the U.S. embassy in Ankrah, Turkey, helping with press conferences. She met a Washington Post reporter.

“She asked such questions. . . . She insists until she gets the answer. . . . I fell in love with this thing—the question and answer dynamic,” Emine said.

Some women in this series became journalists because they enjoyed telling stories. Denisa was shy when she was in college, but her friends encouraged her to become a journalist because they saw her love for storytelling.

“When I became a journalist, I loved it. I loved storytelling. It’s kind of like a movie you’re doing every day,” Denisa said.

Arina, a journalist from Estonia, became a journalist because she wanted to be a writer. “Journalism,” she said, “it sort of a lifestyle . . . not something you learn to be.”

Others found that journalism took them to interesting places they might not go if they held others jobs.

“I would never have been content with just reading the papers or watching the news. I always want to be there when it was happening,” said Ella, a journalist working in her home country of Zimbabwe.

Mary, who works throughout the Philippines, said: “Journalism has really allowed me to be in the front lines. It gives you a front-row seat to what is happening.”

Adilah, who works in the Middle East, said: “Now it feels like it’s in my blood. . . . It’s what I feel passionate about. It makes me feel alive. . . . I certainly don’t get a thrill from other people’s misery, but I think there is a thrill of feeling alive and feeling your senses.”

Reporting on the struggles of others helped some women journalists better gain insights into their own lives or the lives of loved ones.

“I think I wanted to understand violence because I grew up in a violent country,” said Martina, an Argentine native.

Stella, who suffered the death of a brother when she was younger, said telling the stories of other people’s losses had helped her make sense of her own grief. “The fact they could turn their pain into something positive. I found that very inspiring . . . . I just think there’s a resilience in people.”

Hannah, a Ugandan journalist, became interested in domestic violence after seeing her sister beaten.

Anna said she became a war correspondent because she was curious about why individuals would go to war. She became interested after she saw a picture of one of her grandfather’s friends and learned he had died when he threw himself on a grenade.

For some journalists, one of the rewards of their jobs was a sense of personal accomplishment.

Claire said that she felt driven to pursue news stories; the more difficult the assignment, the more willing she was to take it on.

“The more austere, the more remote, the more inaccessible, the more important it was,” said Claire. “I always knew I had . . . the capability to do it, knowing if you failed to do it, you would have failed to live up to your potential.”

Mary also felt a sense of accomplishment when stories were published. “You have done something right. You have done something good in your life. You were able to use your craft, your talent, to be a voice for the marginalized, those who are on the fringes of society. . . . Journalism is not just a job. It’s a commitment.”

Adira, a Pakistani journalist, said: “The best stories were those that helped the victim, and they found justice through our coverage of their story. . . . When you see the good results of your work, in the end, for society or a citizen, it renews your belief in your work.”

For others, there were the rewards of gratitude of their audiences.

Jessa, who covered violent protests in Myanmar, said: “Authorities were always unhappy with my coverage, but the public in general was thankful.”

Estonia journalist Arina, who covered violence in Europe and the Middle East, said she, too, received positive feedback from readers, who said, “You finally told us how something happened.”

Anna said she had received calls from family members of fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, whom she’d written stories about—something she was grateful for, but embarrassed by.

And for all the good they do and the satisfaction it generates, women journalists said the work remains difficult.

“As much as I believe our job is important, I wouldn’t wish anyone to do it,” said Emine

Next in the series: What they risked. Women journalists talk about safety.