More female journalists means broader foreign coverage

A conference on women in media met at Columbia's Journalism School on Saturday

In 2013, Lauren Wolfe, a freelance journalist who has reported extensively on sexual violence director of Women Under Siege at the Women’s Media Center, met a Syrian rape survivor in a hospital in Jordan. She was left paralyzed, she told Wolfe, after being imprisoned, raped, and tortured by the Syrian regime’s forces. She gave Wolfe permission to publish her name and a photograph of her face.

“This was unheard of in Syria,” said Wolfe, speaking on Saturday at “Conversations in Journalism,” a conference on women in media organized by students at Columbia’s Journalism School. Wolfe was moderating a panel called “Trauma, Tragedy, and Conflict.” Panelists included Anna Therese Day, an independent journalist based in the Middle East and North Africa, and Jenny Nordberg, a New York-based foreign affairs columnist for Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

Wolfe said she asked fellow journalists, Syrian activists, and staff at NGOs whether she should publish the woman’s name and photograph. The journalists told her to use both because this war “needs a name and a face.” The activists told her to use one but not the other. And those at the NGOs advised her not to use either one, because the woman’s family (her ex-husband and children) were still living in Syria and could be killed in retaliation. But Wolfe felt it denied the woman’s agency to hide her identity.

“I finally chose to use her first name and middle name and no photo,” said Wolfe. Her name was Alma Abdulrahman. Her story was published in The Atlantic last summer.

But the panel discussion was dominated by talk of female reporters’ own safety. Despite the recent murder of AP photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus, Nordberg said that conditions for foreign correspondents have improved over the past decade.

“Smart editors send female journalists to conservative countries and to war,” she said, mentioning a friend who was reporting in Mali who told her that it was “all women reporters.” Since foreign women are often not bound by as many restrictions as local women, Nordberg said, they had access to both men and women.

Nevertheless, Day said, the narrative of war was still largely masculine. “I am really interested in what would be an alternative,” she added. Wolfe said it felt that way because war journalists were still “not telling the majority of stories.” She believes too much of the coverage is still focused on the battles, and the stories of civilians, mostly women and children, are overlooked, she said.

The most personal questions from the audience emerged in the last panel, which focused on representation in the media. Led by Soraya Chemaly, who writes about feminism and gender, the discussion took off from a recent report by the Women’s Media Center that said women were still underrepresented in US media. The panel included The New York Times’ race and ethnicity correspondent, Tanzina Vega, Women’s eNews founder Rita Henley Jensen, and the editor of CNN’s In America blog, Alicia Stewart.

The report found that as the newspaper industry shrinks, so does the number of women in key jobs. In four of the six newer online-only sites reviewed, male bylines outnumbered those of women. Even Fortune’s list of 50 most powerful women in business, the report says, includes only 17 women at media and technology companies.

The three panelists passionately argued that the reasons for women being underrepresented in media are both structural and individual. “It goes way beyond hiring people of color or women,” said Jensen. She said it’s not about working hard or “hustling” or getting lucky: “It’s the right to be as mediocre as the guy who gets the job.”

The conference, which included panels on data and innovation, networking and diversity in the media, drew a shifting crowd as the day progressed. Most of the attendees, however, were women. But the panelists were impressed by the audience’s interest and response, the range of topics covered and, most of all, the purpose of the event: to “highlight female professional who have put theory into practice to achieve continued success throughout their careers.”

Wolfe, a Columbia Journalism School alumna herself, remarked, “In my time here you would not have had this day.”

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Aparna Alluri is a CJR intern