Berit von der Lippe, Rune Ottosen (eds.): Gendering War and Peace Reporting

reviewed by Julia Lönnendonker

The collection of essays Gendering War and Peace Reporting, edited by von der Lippe and Ottosen, examines the role of gender in war reporting. Reporting on war has traditionally been dominated by men: Not only are the majority of war reporters past and present male, but their sources, including politicians, high-ranking military, and civil servants, are also often men.

The editors consider whether the increasing presence of women – both as war reporters and as actors in the military and politics – has changed reporting from the front and whether the female perspective has led to a greater focus on the victims of war, rather than the technical and strategic aspects that dominated in the past. The answers to these questions remain unclear, and there is no deterministic link between gender and more ›peaceful‹ news. However, the forces that shape our collective perspective are still dominated by male voices to this day. Traditionally masculine stories still shape the rules of the game of war (cf. 9). Following an introduction from the editors, the collection consists of 15 articles. They are divided into four themed sections, each of which contains three or four chapters on gender and war and peace journalism through the lens of the respective theme.

In the introduction, von der Lippe and Ottosen explain the thematic association between gender and war and peace reporting, creating a basis that aids understanding of the various articles. The very brief introduction gives a rather trenchant overview of the topic, shining a light on the huge range of perspectives.

The »A third gender or post-colonial flashback« section, in which the authors provocatively discuss the increasing number of Western female journalists in the Islamic world, is particularly thought-provoking. On the one hand, the increase in the number of female reporters can be seen as progress in terms of emancipation. On the other, Western female journalists working in the Islamic world are often seen as a kind of »third gender,« viewed by the men who live there as both different from the local women and less threatening than male journalists.

While some Western female journalists use this to their advantage in gathering information, it also reinforces the traditional role of the Arab woman, in stark contrast to the modern, educated, Western woman. The authors describe the danger that liberal feminist ideas of gender equality could turn into »a nasty little weapon of imperialism« (12). Together with Judith Butler, the editors define gender and the heterogeneity of influences of gender of war and peace reporting as »an act that requires repetitive performance ›of a set of meanings already socially established; it is the mundane and ritualised form of their legitimation‹ (Butler 1999: 178)« (18).

The four thematic blocks that follow examine very different aspects of gender in war and peace reporting. This takes two forms: the results of scientific studies and the voices of practitioners reporting on their experiences in war and crisis zones. A very positive aspect is the well-organized structure of the volume, with each sub-chapter building on the last and helping to explain the next. Despite this, each chapter also works well as a standalone piece.

In the first thematic block, entitled »Gendering Professional Agencies,« Linda Steiner examines the dangers and forms of sexism to which female war reporters were subjected from a historical perspective. In her chapter »Gendered Narratives: On Peace, Security and News Media Accountability to Women,« Sarah Macharia demands that journalism become more professional in terms of gender consciousness. Based on a content analysis that was initiated by the United Nations Entity of Gender Equality (UN Women) to examine reporting on peace and security issues in 15 countries, she demonstrates that »women are barely present in peace and security print news produced in transitional and conflict countries« (55) and describes transnational »patriarchal capitalist norms in news media systems, shaping newsroom practices, approaches to news production and the content delivered« (59).

In the third chapter of the same thematic block, Lilian Ngusuur Unaegbu describes a pattern of discrimination against women in reporting about the terrorist organization Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria. Taking interviews with female journalists as her starting point, she shows that female journalists are banned from reporting on the topic, even though cultural and religious reasons mean that many Nigerian women would be more likely to talk to female journalists. In the final chapter of this section, entitled »Sexual Violence against Journalists in Conflict Zones, and Gendered Practices and Cultures in the Newsroom,« Marte Høiby questions the assumption that violence against male reporters is significantly different from violence against women and that female journalists therefore need particular protection. By putting the spotlight on the vulnerability of male journalists, too, she shows that security measures for journalists are influenced by a paradigm that has men as aggressors and women as victims. As a result, men’s vulnerability is underestimated and women are discriminated against.

Eva Boller kicks off the second thematic block, »Women and Lack of Agency,« with her essay »›There are no women‹. The War in Libya in TV News.« In it, she shows that almost 60 percent of all television news stories transmitted in Germany, France, and the UK about the 2011 war in Libya did not feature a single woman. Furthermore, German television did not have a single female correspondent on the ground at the time – French television had just one, while the BBC had seven. According to Boller, the main reason for this lack of women in reporting is the strong focus on »reporting on the battlefield instead of reporting about the situation for the civilian population« (21).

In the next chapter, »War and Women’s Voices: The Gender Approach of Afghanistan’s Largest News Agency,« Elisabeth Eide looks at the representation of women in reporting by the largest Afghan news agency Pajhwok. She shows that, although women’s issues are not generally a high priority, any coverage they do receive is usually by women themselves. Violence is a very prominent topic, and an analysis of the topics and keywords that arise confirms a strong link between violence and the lack of rights. Traditions are usually named as the reason behind the violence, while the ongoing war is rarely mentioned in this context.

The third chapter of this section is Desy Ayu Pirmasari’s »Being a Female Journalist at the Frontline,« in which she shares her experiences as an Indonesian Muslim female reporter in a male-dominated news environment during the war in Libya. She explains the problems female reporters face in a culture that does not welcome strong, independent women.

In the final chapter of the section, »Good or Bad Agents? Western Fascination with Women and the Construction of Female Objects during the ISIS/ISIL Crisis,« Marta Kollárová challenges the traditional view of women as vulnerable objects that need protection by putting the spotlight on women in battle. Her focus is on the Western media’s ambivalence towards women’s role as soldiers: According to her, they often show reports about strong, pretty Kurdish women who heroically lead the fight against ISIS fighters, while representing women who join ISIS as ghostly creatures who are manipulated by ISIS propaganda and do not know what they are doing.

Sadia Jamil begins the third thematic block, »Postcolonial Perspectives Forever,« by shining a light on »Journalism Practice and Freedom of Expression« in Pakistan from the point of view of the two genders. In doing so, she focuses on discussing the challenge facing female Pakistani journalists from the perspective of postcolonial feminist theory. The next chapter by Berit von der Lippe, »Philanthropic War Narratives and Dangerous Protection Scenario(s),« uses Afghanistan to highlight the contradictions and paradoxes of embedded war reporting. Taking the visit by the Norwegian Defense Minister to a women’s prison in the Afghan province of Faryab in 2009 as an example, she explains the difficult tightrope that has to be walked between ›feminist philanthropy‹ and war reporting. The minister allowed the female reporters to photograph inmates without their veils and to publish the very intimate details they told her, thus endangering »the lives of those ›we‹ claim to protect and empower« (23).

The next chapter, »Key Factors and Challenges to Understanding Women’s Roles in the Peace Process in Afghanistan« by Quhramaana Kakar, attempts to explain how the role of women has developed in Afghanistan’s misogynistic society. In the thematic block’s final chapter, »Is Peace a Smiling Woman? Femininities and Masculinities in Conflict and Peace Coverage,« Kristin Skare Orgeret uses examples from Norwegian newspapers to examine how the concepts of gender, war, and peace are applied in reporting on international strategies for conflict and peace. She looks for alternatives to the »universal ›white feminism‹« that she argues is constructed in the Norwegian newspapers. By linking her critical perspective with peace journalism, she attempts to enable more diverse representations of femininity and masculinity in conflict and the establishment of peace.

In the final thematic block entitled »Masculinities, Heroes and Victims,« the authors make the case for awareness of the constructions of femininity and masculinity in the media’s war reporting. In his article »Masculinity, Iconisation and Fictional War Heroes in the GWT,« Rune Ottosen examines how the media distort the male experience in theatres of war, for example by discussing the traditional American hero as the basis of American war propaganda and its influence on Norwegian media. In his chapter »Why War – Still? Albert Meets Sigmund in the Ultimate Match-Up;« Toby Miller imagines a conversation between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud on the topics of war and peace. He then goes on to discuss how this depiction of masculine scientific and technological rationality influences contemporary reporting. In the final chapter, entitled »Subversive Victims,« Anette Bringedal Houge questions the assumption that only women are become victims of sexual abuse and rape in large numbers during times of war. As an example, she cites the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in which male prisoners on all sides suffered sexual violence. However unlike violence against women, this was never discussed in the media.

This brief overview of the individual articles shows the diverse range of topics covered in this collected volume. Each chapter contains a high density of information, yet is still easy to read despite the complexity of the issues covered. However, what is missing is a summary at the end that ties together and contextualizes the (often ambivalent) conclusions from the individual chapters. As it is, at the end of the final chapter, the reader feels a little lost among all the loose ends and has to spend time classifying and transferring the new knowledge himself. Ultimately, however, this is the only flaw in a very informative and well-structured compilation of articles dedicated to the topic of gender and war and peace reporting.

Translation: Sophie Costella

This book review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien (r:k:m).

About the reviewer

Julia Lönnendonker is a post-doctoral student at the Institute for Communication Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Her research focuses on international and European journalism, foreign reporting, and European public life and identity, among other fields.

The book

Berit von der Lippe, Rune Ottosen (eds.): Gendering War and Peace Reporting. Some Insights – Some Missing Links.Gothenburg [Nordicom] 2016, 278 pages, EUR 32