NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Judith Matloff doesn’t like the term “war reporter.”
“There is no glory to it,” Matloff, a veteran reporter of global conflict for more than 20 years, told Women’s eNews. “You can go for weeks without taking a bath; your colleagues could die; you could be in mortal danger.”
For the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston newspaper, and Reuters, the British news wire, Matloff has covered the Chechen war, the Rwanda genocide and the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique.
Now she is finishing her second book, “Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block,” to be published by Random House in June. In “Home Girl,” Matloff describes her attempt to escape conflict only to walk right into it by buying real estate at the center of the drug trade in Harlem. And she is teaching a course on covering conflict at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York, where she has been an adjunct professor since January 2002.
She is also trying to challenge notions of a swaggering, hyper-masculine reporter at the center of a war zone. It’s an image, she says, that not only obscures the presence of women but also fuels dangerous taboos surrounding female correspondents’ struggles with sexual assault. “Women have risen to the top of war and foreign reportage. They run bureaus in dodgy places and do jobs that are just as dangerous as those that men do,” Matloff wrote in an article last year in the bimonthly Columbia Journalism Review. “But there is one area where they differ from the boys–sexual harassment and rape.”
Survey Revealed Frequent Abuse
Matloff’s article grew out of a survey of 29 female war correspondents published in 2005 by the International News Safety Institute, a Brussels-based group that works on media safety and persecution issues. More than half, according to the survey, anonymously reported sexual harassment on the job and two said they had experienced sexual abuse.
Matloff reached out to these survey respondents through the institute. She found that female reporters fear being pulled off an assignment and many keep their violations secret. Editors, who are most often male, tend to be unaware of the dangers women face because of this concealment, which also makes it hard to judge how often it occurs. Of the dozen assaults she knew of via the survey and her own experience, “eight involved forced intercourse.”
“Rape is something that they will talk about amongst themselves,” Matloff said about female journalists. “You don’t want to show vulnerability, because your bosses would question whether you are up to it.”
Matloff experienced a close call once herself, but never mentioned it to her editor because she didn’t want her boss to think her gender was a liability.
“Many male peers still harbor the notion that we are too delicate for the task,” Matloff wrote in a March 2005 op-ed for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a Seattle-based global network of journalists focused on improving media coverage of conflict. (Matloff is a member of Dart’s media advisory board.) “To prove otherwise, women sometimes take silly risks or feel compelled to work harder.”
Professional Instincts to Mimic Men
Compounding their risks, Matloff said, are professional guidelines that ignore female reporters’ vulnerabilities.
“Even with so much work on safety, the two leading safety manuals in the field, put out by the International Federation of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have nothing on the particular issues that women face in terms of sexual violence,” she told Women’s eNews. “I would suppose that is because men are compiling these manuals.”
Public discussion is crucial in changing this, Matloff argues, along with self-defense training.
Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center, calls Matloff a pioneer in reporting on rape and other violence against women as newsworthy crimes of war. “If you go back to Vietnam and earlier wars, you will find assaults on women scarcely mentioned,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Matloff helped break this taboo.”
Emotional Toll of Covering Conflict
The emotional toll of experiencing and witnessing trauma is something Matloff also addresses in her writing and teaching.
She was “among the first war correspondents,” Shapiro said, “to understand that occupational safety means more than just flak jackets. It also means attending to the psychological impact of covering horrifying events.”
Anup Kaphle, a graduate student in journalism at Columbia who took Matloff’s course this past fall, said, “As far as trauma, she reminded us that we should not try to work under depression, which is often the situation in a conflict zone.”
“It takes guts, emotional stability and physical stamina,” Matloff said about covering war. “This requires almost survivor skills.”
Bob Drogin, a national security correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, worked on some of the same stories that Matloff covered while she was the Africa bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor from 1994 to 1997. “I knew her as a hard-charging, fearless reporter,” Drogin wrote via e-mail. “I don’t remember ever hearing her complain, no matter how miserable the circumstances.”
That’s quite a compliment given that during this period Matloff says she witnessed the “most horrendous” thing she had ever seen in her first 15 years as a journalist: the exhumation of 15,000 bodies while covering the first anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
“I find covering violence repugnant but very compelling, because these are life and death issues,” Matloff said. “It is about survival and the human tales that are probably some of the most rewarding you can report on as a writer.”
Jeanine Plant is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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For more information:
Columbia Journalism Review, Judith Matloff, “Unspoken: Foreign Correspondents and Sexual Abuse”:
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma:
International News Safety Institute:
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