Skip to main site content.
Swedish journalist Kim Wall (TT NEWS AGENCY/ Tom Wall Handout via REUTERS)


Rethinking the dangers women journalists face

By Alice Driver on August 28, 2017

I know, as all women journalists know, that if anything ever happens to me while reporting, the first questions people ask will focus on analyzing my judgement. Women in journalism — in print, on TV, in editorial positions, and in photojournalism — are underrepresented, which often results in our presence and our professionalism being questioned. We are mistaken for assistants and students, told to fetch coffee in professional settings, and at times surrounded by men who assume that they can comment on or touch our bodies. We are forced to measure danger in mundane situations and to weigh whether we can continue an assignment due to subtle threats or insinuations from men. A common question asked among my colleagues is: “How much work have I had to turn down because I was worried about sexual harassment or violence?” I wonder how many male journalists ask themselves that question.

When Swedish journalist Kim Wall disappeared on August 11, 2017, there was a lot of speculation about why she had agreed to go on a submarine alone with its inventor, Peter Madsen. However, among Wall’s colleagues, the conversation was a different one. As Alexis Okeowo wrote in her moving tribute to Wall in The New Yorker, “I probably would have gone down into the submarine with Madsen — so would a lot of female journalists I know.”

Wall’s seemingly mundane interview with the inventor of the submarine made me think of a recent reporting trip I took. In June 2017, I traveled to Tapachula, Mexico, to report on migration for Longreads. I spent time at the only shelter in Mexico for migrants who have been mutilated on the migrant trail, Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y del Migrante. While there, I interviewed migrants, among them Noel Antonio Torres Lorenzo.

Lorenzo, 32, hails from Tegucigalpa, and had lost his leg from the hip down. He was at the shelter awaiting his prosthesis. When Noel and a friend of his in a wheelchair asked for my business card so they could read the article I would publish, I gave it to Noel. Later when I interviewed Aracy Matus Sánchez, the director of the shelter, she talked about how mutilated migrants are also sometimes recruited by gangs, and urged me never to share my email or let anyone take photos with me. “Don’t trust anyone. Just because someone doesn’t have legs doesn’t make them a good person,” she cautioned, and then she walked over to Lorenzo and asked him to return my card. As she put the card back in my hand, I got chills.

Alice Driver interviews Noel Antonio Torres Lorenzo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, at the only shelter in Mexico for migrants who have been mutilated. (Photo by Cambria Harkey)

When violence against women occurs, the conversation is frequently focused on a woman’s body and her actions rather than the overwhelming threat — serving as a subtle normalization of masculine violence. Speaking of Wall, photojournalist Daniella Zalcman said, “What I’ve been thinking about most is that women are so often passed over for assignments that are considered stereotypically ‘dangerous’ — perhaps most notably front-line conflict, but plenty of other situations as well. And the sad truth is that it’s all irrelevant, because women are at risk (almost always from men) wherever they go.”

Zalcman is the founder of Women Photograph, a database of women photographers to help increase the representation of women in photojournalism because in the U.S., for example, only 19 percent of photographers at major news organizations are women. Although equality in photojournalism may appear irrelevant to the discussion about Wall, it is at the heart of how we treat, cover and represent women in the media. Until we hire female journalists in equal numbers at the same rank and pay as men, we will continue to have these tired discussions in which we essentially blame women for the violence they have suffered while simultaneously ignoring the elephant in the room — masculine violence.

The irony, as Zalcman pointed out, is that, “Kim reported from some of the most unstable and dangerous places in the world,” including North Korea, the Marshall Islands and Haiti, among others. But she was killed chasing a story that originated in Copenhagen, in a situation where there was a reasonable expectation of safety.

Zalcman suggests we need to rethink the paradigm by which we’ve come to understand violence and threats against women. “We so often frame violence and danger along nationalistic or ethnic or religious lines — but the truth is the only unifying theme to violence is masculinity. That’s what women have to face, daily, and that’s what we need to address.”

I would have gotten on the submarine just as Wall had, and I know that my colleagues and I will continue to ask that editors send us to report on some of the most dangerous regions in the world, just as Wall did. The objective of masculine violence is to silence women, but to honor Wall’s life, we must not be silent. We must make ourselves heard.


4 fearless journalists speak out about being in the cross hairs of a ‘war on values’

TV journalist Shifa Gardi killed in Iraq covering battle to reclaim Mosul from ISIS

Journalist Afrah Shawqi discusses her abduction and brutal torture by shadowy captors