Female foreign corespondents are finding more success when reporting in cultures outside of their own
After Haiti’s devastating earthquake hit in January 2010, Daniele Hamamdjian touched down on the impoverished nation as part of the first international reporting team to tell the story. That story would change her life. An Ottawa-based parliamentary correspondent for CTV News at the time, Hamamdjian soon found herself walking along roads littered with tarp-covered bodies of men, women and children. Initially, her bosses at CTV were uneasy about sending a reporter so young to an unstable part of the world—but something told them it was the right decision. The next thing she knew she had buried herself in research, knowing that she had a job to do: to tell the story of Haiti’s survival.
“If you’re not going to be moved by that, then you’re not human,” Hamamdjian says of the scenes she encountered in Haiti. “You do this job because we want to tell the story and if you’re going to stop–if you are not going to be able to tell it because you are going to be overcome by emotion–then that’s a problem.”
Being overcome by emotion is a stereotype pinned on women as soon as they enter the workforce. Because of this stereotype, it is assumed they are at a disadvantage in reporting challenging stories, but for former Canadian Press war correspondent Dene Moore, her gender was key to unlocking previously inaccessible stories.
During her work in Afghanistan, Moore says she was regularly able to talk to women concealed behind burqas. Due to cultural restrictions under Taliban rule, male reporters are often not allowed in the same room as a woman without a family liaison present. That disconnect hinders what a woman can share with a reporter. Moore says she was welcomed into the homes of many women whose stories had previously been untold.
As soon they were out of sight, Moore recalls, these women would rip off their burqas and begin to confess their secret aspirations to build businesses and independently support their families.
Because of this experience, Moore fell in love with Kandahar. “[These women are] possibly the most oppressed people in the world,” says Moore, who retired from Canadian Press in 2017 and now lives in 100 Mile House, B.C.
“To have that kind of strength, despite being raised with people telling you can only be this, you can only do that and placing all these limits on you. But to them, they had no limits. They were just incredible.”
After weeks immersed in troubled countries, Moore and Hamamdjian both found it hard to readjust to their normal routines and struggled to understand how the two worlds can coexist. Hamamdjian, for one—returning home most recently from Myanmar to London, where she is now based as a foreign correspondent for CTV—cannot believe that the wealthy neighbourhoods of London can exist just a continent away.
“I don’t get it, but it’s very easy for people to pretend like this is not happening,” she says. “It’s our job to bring these issues and shed light on them and put them on the news.”
While women may not be at a disadvantage covering challenging stories in dangerous parts of the world, that isn’t to say that foreign assignments don’t take their toll. Continued exposure to emotionally charged settings place mental stress on any human being, says Vancouver psychologist Nicole Aube—although many reporters don’t realize they may be having a stress reaction from their work. Aube believes this is because many journalists, both men and women, live a fast-paced lifestyle and simply do not have the time to reflect on what they have just experienced.
“It’s sort of taboo in this field to discuss what is happening,” says Aube. “They feel they are not supposed to experience that, and they are so busy and they move so fast that they don’t feel it.” Women are especially prone to this way of thinking, given hierarchies in newsrooms and other workplaces that have historically favoured men.
Aube says that there are two different kinds of reactions journalists have from working in high-stress situations: stress reaction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She says that between leaving these conflict zones and being back in their homes, it is crucial for reporters to process what they have experienced and ensure proper mental health regeneration. If left unattended, a stress reaction can quickly escalate and develop into symptoms of PTSD once back in their regular routine. However, Aube says stress reaction is a positive thing.
“If you don’t have a vehicle to let [emotions] go and express it,” says Aube. “They may be quite encapsulated and create some kind of reverberation or shaking, and emotionally that could create some kind of disorder [like PTSD].”
For Moore, there was no shortage of stress-inducing situations while stationed abroad, especially her first trip to Kandahar in 2009. While covering the deployment of the Royal 22e Régiment with two other journalists, their light-armoured vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device returning from Gundy Ghar. Although she and the other journalists were unharmed, two soldiers were injured by shrapnel in the explosion.
“I accepted, before that ever happened, that life can be short—and at the end of the day, you have no control over that,” says Moore. “Being in a war zone is certainly a heightened risk. But it’s also heightened reward.”