Women from the frontline: Life of the war reporter

Helen Deller
Helen DellerApr 16, 2015 | 16:36

Women from the frontline: Life of the war reporter

In 1942, as the World War II raged, Vogue magazine accredited its own war correspondent, Lee Miller. Together with her contemporaries like the renowned Martha Gellhorn she led the charge of women reporting from the front line. Their dispatches and the battles they fought personally to bring the news to those back home paved the way for our female reporters of today.


The likes of BBC chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet and her BBC World News colleagues Yalda Hakim and Anne Soy now regularly file stories from around the globe. They have helped the international rolling news channel maintain its position as the leader in global breaking news. But what does it take to break stories in 2014? And has life changed for the female reporter? We caught up with Lyse, Yalda and Anne to find out.

Lyse with 'Karam' in Qalandia, near Ramallah, during a protest by Palestinians against the IDF.

Anne Soy, a bilingual reporter for the BBC's Africa services had just returned from Somalia when she was back on the front line breaking the Kenyan Mall Attack, one of the biggest and most tragic stories of 2013.

Anne Soy at Westgate.

"At one point I was interviewing a man standing outside who told me he had lost two relatives already, shot dead inside, and while we were doing this we had people saying to cover and we dived for cover. So it was very uncertain, there was a lot of anxiety," explained Anne.

For Lyse, being first to tell a story is important, but must be coupled with a commitment to accuracy and impartiality to protect the BBC's status as the world's most trusted news broadcaster:


"There is an immediacy about breaking news, the excitement that you are in the margin of history, and sometimes in the very march of the moment. But there is also the responsibility of getting it right when a situation can be fast changing."

Yalda Hakim expresses similar sentiment - accuracy is everything. "I agree that anyone can break a story, but what is important is that the information you put out there is verified and credible - and that is what sets us apart from other platforms," she says.

Having been in the field for 30 years Lyse feels she has been privileged to cover a lot of the "big stories" of recent times. But she suggests for those involved every breaking news moment is big:

"I tend to focus on regions where I have also lived so that I never regard my trips as just work, or stories. It is also a return to places where I know people in all walks of life, where I have experienced some of the 'heat and dust', and lived through some of the history. So it is part of my own life too.


Sadly I've reported on every war in the Middle East for the past twenty years. I have been working in Afghanistan since 1988 and I've also been a regular visitor to Syria, including the last four years of its punishing war."

Referring to her breaking of the Yarmouk siege story in Syria last year Lyse provides testament of why journalists often shun the natural human instinct of running from a dramatic, violent or tragic event, to bring audiences news of what has happened.

Lyse in Bab Amr, Homs, Syria.

"Everybody knew the situation was absolutely dreadful. No one gets in Yarmouk when the fighting goes on. And the fighting goes on day in, day out. What we saw was a break through, the United Nations went in and we went in with them. It was overwhelming. The density of it. It was a narrow corridor and in the middle was a sea of people. I met 13 year old Kifah. He tried to put on a brave face. Everything was normal here he told me and then he admitted there was no bread. It was all too much for him. It is now said Yarmouk is a byword for suffering in Syria and that's saying a lot."

And being on the front line brings considerable challenges, often not immediately apparent to the audience. Yalda, who has recently returned from reporting on the crisis in Iraq, describes a narrow escape at the main check point between Mosul and Irbil.

"We had driven to Aski Kalak check point to do my live reports and there were these loud bangs; two mortar rockets had dropped. I had my flak jacket but that probably wouldn't have saved me. I was at the live point and they [the studio] threw to me and I was like 'hang on a second we just had a mortar rocket go off'."

The women war reporters of World War II went to great pains to prove they were as able to tell a story as their male colleagues. But it seems 70 years on a fascination remains about what drives a woman to report from the front line. Journalists like Lyse, Yalda and Anne are still asked if their gender impacts their work; not something anyone questioned when renowned BBC correspondent John Simpson donned a burka to get into Afghanistan ahead of the US invasion.

For Lyse journalism is not gender specific. "I don't see journalism in terms of gender, I never have," she says. "Journalism is defined by the kind of questions we ask and those questions come from our perspective on the world. We each walk into a room, we take notice of different things, we ask different questions. So being a woman, I may ask slightly different questions. But I know as many men who are interested in the human side of war as I know women who are more interested in the ballistics and the bombs and the aircraft."

The Damascus bombing, 2012.

She adds, "Maybe because I am a woman I'm seen as less threatening in some societies. Perhaps women are seen as people who need protection. But I sometimes think you're treated like a sort of third gender."

In contrast, Yalda recognises her gender as a tool for doing her job. "When you are a woman people find you less threatening and intimidating and it helped a lot especially when I was dealing with local women in places such as Pakistan, where they are afraid to talk about issues. Because I'm a woman they related to me and it was easier for them to talk to me than my male counterparts," she says.

Anne admits that her personal experiences can drive her reporting but she is clear about the bottom line - professionalism as the key to success. "I am a mother; I have two little girls and a lot of times when I do cover these conflicts I am drawn to the stories that do affect children and mothers because I put myself in their shoes and see the difficulties they are going through and this helps me to bring out the stories," she explains.

"When we are covering stories the issue about me being a woman hardly ever comes up because I think when we are on the ground we are covering the story as professionals and that's what is important for us."

Last updated: April 16, 2015 | 16:36
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy