By Sheila Gibbons
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
The life of freelance journalist Jill Carroll hangs in the balance and Sheila Gibbons says it's a good moment to ask what women throughout journalism should expect from their profession.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The kidnapping of freelance journalist Jill Carroll is a horrifying reminder of the risks journalists in war zones confront.
Abduction, abuse and death are equal-opportunity dangers for war correspondents, be they female or male. Would that the profession in which they serve rewarded them equally for their dedication to journalism by finally erasing differences in compensation, advancement and respect.
It's no longer unusual to see a woman reporting from countries in crisis, as Carroll has, or being bureau chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, as The Associated Press' Kathy Gannon, now bound for Iran, has been. Their involvement in international hot spots is the result of a long-running push for more important assignments for female journalists.
That push was itself the legacy of a "generation of newswomen that risked and sometimes ruined their careers to get papers to treat female journalists just like they did the boys," writes New York Times editorial page editor Gail Collins in her foreword to Patricia Bradley's "Women and the Press: The Struggle for Equality," published in December 2005 by Northwestern University Press.
Unfortunately, truth be told, we're still waiting for that day.
Female journalists are sitting at or near the top of the mountain at more U.S. news organizations, but their ranks in the thin air remain small. They're better dispersed throughout news organizations than they were 20 years ago, but they also bow out of journalism sooner than men do. Today, they start their careers with compensation close to men's but a painful gender pay gap opens up as journalists grow older and more experienced.
Perhaps it will strike some as inappropriate to express concern about female journalists' career advancement and lifetime earnings when the life of one of them hangs in the balance. But I think it's only fair to ask what skilled journalists such as Jill Carroll and her female colleagues should expect from the profession to which they give so much.
Parity in compensation should be the very least they should expect, but that remains elusive. The American Journalist survey released in April 2003--which offers the latest comprehensive compensation figures--showed that female journalists' median salary in 2001 was $37,731, about 81 percent of men's median salary of $46,758, the same percentage as in 1991. Male and female journalists with less than 15 years of experience have comparable median salaries, but for those with 15 to 19 years' experience, the gender gap is $4,425. Among those with 20 or more years of experience, the gap is $7,314. Freelancers such as Carroll, who usually cover their own expenses, net even less.
The problem is worldwide. In just one example, more than 200 female journalists with the Paris-based Agence France Presse signed a petition last May protesting inferior salaries and fewer opportunities for advancement compared with those of the men with whom they worked.
They should also expect to be amply rewarded for initiative and for upholding the fundamental principles of journalism. Writing about freelancing in the February-March 2005 issue of American Journalism Review, Carroll talked about her own standards of practice.
"Covering the war gives journalists an opportunity to recall the noblest tenets of their profession and fulfill the public service role of journalism," she said.
"The sense that I could do more good in the Middle East than in the U.S. drove me to move to Jordan six months before the war to learn as much about the region as possible before the fighting began. All I ever wanted to be was a foreign correspondent, so when I was laid off from my reporting assistant job at The Wall Street Journal in August 2002, it seemed the right time to try to make it happen. There was bound to be plenty of parachute journalism once the war started, and I didn't want to be a part of that."
An Arabic speaker, Carroll wears a head scarf and traditional Iraqi dress to blend in and to live more like the Iraqis about whom she writes.
In a news business where many standards have been lowered to accommodate sensationalism and gimmicks in ploys for ratings and circulation, Carroll's efforts, and those of women and men like her, are laudable. Her productivity for the Christian Science Monitor, the Jordan Times and Italian media for whom she has freelanced, her enterprise, and her personal courage, are qualities that any attentive editor should endeavor to secure.
Female journalists should also be respected for the special risks they take and talents they have. Essential to Carroll's success is her knowledge of Arabic, her ability to create a local guise and familiarity with and genuine interest in the Iraqi people, all of which have improved her access to sources and made her more effective.
Carroll's assimilation technique was endorsed by The Washington Post's Jackie Spinner, the newspaper's former Baghdad bureau chief.
In an online discussion about Carroll on Jan. 19, Spinner said, "As a female reporter in Iraq, I did feel like I could disguise myself better than some of my male colleagues. In a scarf and abaya, with the right shoes, purse and even makeup, I could blend in fairly well. Whenever someone said to me, 'Wow, you really look Iraqi,' I took that as a compliment, and it made me feel more secure." Despite her success in blending in, Spinner herself narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt in Iraq.
According to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Carroll was the 35th media worker to have been kidnapped in Iraq since the start of the war.
She is the latest in a series of abductions of female journalists. Florence Aubenas, a veteran reporter for the French daily Liberation, was kidnapped in January 2005 and released last summer. Giuliana Sgrena, a reporter for Italy's Il Manifesto, was abducted in February 2005 and released a month later. She was wounded by U.S. troops as she was being driven to freedom. The body of Iraqi journalist Raeda Mohammed Wageh Wazzan was found on Feb. 25, 2005, in Mosul, five days after she was kidnapped by masked men. She had been shot in the head.
Other dangers in Iraq have cost journalists their lives. The Boston Globe's Elizabeth Neuffer, a veteran reporter who had covered conflicts in Rwanda, Afghanistan and Bosnia, was killed in a car crash in May 2003 while returning to Baghdad from Tikrit.
Carroll's captors have demanded the release of imprisoned female Iraqis. With perverse logic, they imprison one woman to liberate others.
The situation makes me heartsick. When I see the Al-Jazeera video of a weary but composed Jill Carroll, ringed by masked thugs brandishing automatic weapons over her head, I am struck by her dignity, her grace. She's an inspiration, as are other female journalists who keep doing important work despite the profession's record on pay, advancement and esteem.
I hope we see Carroll survive and carry on.
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing Inc., which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass