the kicker

Lara Logan, Foreign Correspondents, and Sexual Abuse

February 17, 2011

On Tuesday came the chilling news from CBS News that chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan, while reporting a 60 Minutes segment in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on February 11th, “suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating” and is now in the United States recovering.

The news has since inspired some smart, stirring writing and thinking (see, for starters, Mac McClelland at Mother Jones on ”What Journalism Can Learn from the Lara Logan Story,” and Melissa Bell at the Washington Post‘s Blogpost). It has also, you may have heard, inspired some less smart and some downright deplorable responses (Jezebel has a round-up of some of this under the headline: “After Lara Logan’s Sexual Assault, Media Helpfully Discuss Her Hotness.”)

In 2007, Judith Matloff, who “was foreign correspondent specializing in areas of turmoil for twenty years, covering more than sixty nations,” wrote a piece for CJR about sexual abuse, an “unspoken” but not uncommon problem for female foreign correspondents. The piece is now, as ever, a tough but worthy read. It begins:

The photographer was a seasoned operator in South Asia. So when she set forth on an assignment in India, she knew how to guard against gropers: dress modestly in jeans secured with a thick belt and take along a male companion. All those preparations failed, however, when an unruly crowd surged and swept away her colleague. She was pushed into a ditch, where several men set upon her, tearing at her clothes and baying for sex. They ripped the buttons off her shirt and set to work on her trousers.

“My first thought was my cameras,” recalls the photographer, who asked to remain anonymous. “Then it was, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be raped.’ ” With her faced pressed into the soil, she couldn’t shout for help, and no one would have heard her anyway above the mob’s taunts. Suddenly a Good Samaritan in the crowd pulled the photographer by the camera straps several yards to the feet of some policemen who had been watching the scene without intervening. They sneered at her exposed chest, but escorted her to safety.

Alone in her hotel room that night, the photographer recalls, she cried, thinking, “What a bloody way to make a living.“ She didn’t inform her editors, however. “I put myself out there equal to the boys. I didn’t want to be seen in any way as weaker.”

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“Quantify[ing] this problem,” Matloff acknowledged, is itself a problem. “The shame runs so deep-and the fear of being pulled off an assignment, especially in a time of shrinking budgets, is so strong,” she wrote, that hardly anyone is willing to talk about it. Matloff also noted that:

[A]mazingly, there are no sections on sexual harassment and assault in the leading handbooks on journalistic safety, by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists.When one considers the level of detail over protections against other eventualities-get vaccinations; pack dummy wallets, etc.-the oversight is staggering.

Mother Jones’s McClelland checked in yesterday with CPJ and reports that they will include a section on sexual assault in the next edition of their safety handbook, due out later this year. Writes McClelland:

It’s about damn time. Hopefully that inclusion and today’s headlines will lead to a broader push by the Fourth Estate to protect correspondents against assault. Because that its obvious responsibility. And because it will protect, too, the crucial stories—including those about sexual violence—that reporters are dispatched to cover.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.