Among the first female war correspondents was Martha Gellhorn, who wrote for Collier’s magazine. Gellhorn faced challenges when covering World War II, including from her husband, Ernest Hemingway, whose telegram to her shortly after their marriage made clear the sexism she endured.
“Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?” Hemingway abrasively wrote.
Gellhorn, undeterred, sailed on a hospital ship to Omaha Beach and was the only woman who covered the events of D-Day.
In the decades since then, more female correspondents would report from war zones. Yet some people are still surprised.
“It feels like it happens all the time — the surprise that women cover war,” said Jane Ferguson, special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and contributor to The New Yorker. “It is not new. There is an ongoing fascination that women are reporting at the front but it has been going on for a long time.”
Ferguson says Gellhorn and other female correspondents covering conflicts were trailblazers for female journalists.
“We are now the norm,” Ferguson said.
And they have experiences and lessons learned that could be helpful to journalists, whether or not they want to cover such conflicts.
Quill caught up with four of them.
Jane Ferguson knew right away that she wanted to be a journalist. Long fascinated with the cultures and customs of the Middle East and Africa, Ferguson read a lot of travel and history and was also interested in how life went on amid conflicts — a parallel she noticed while growing up in Northern Ireland in the midst of the Troubles and the violence at the time from the Irish Republican Army.
It was this humanistic approach that guided the kind of reporting she wanted to do, and she decided she wanted to be a journalist as the subsequent wars resulting from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks began.
“I don’t find myself interested in weaponry and tactics,” Ferguson said. “[The] parallelism of ‘life goes on’ was fascinating. What drives the fears and hopes and dreams [of people] around extraordinary circumstances?”
Ferguson’s work has been synonymous with two key stories within the international news cycle in 2022: Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and the first anniversary of the fall of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, as it returned to Taliban forces after the U.S. military withdrew.
Ferguson’s reporting on war began in 2010 in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. At the time, militants with the group al-Shabaab were fighting against peacekeepers with the African Union, trying to overthrow the government, which was backed by the U.S. Embedded with the African Union peacekeepers who took severe casualties, Ferguson worked solo.
“I was filming by myself — I was a one-man band,” she said. “I was learning about storytelling and how to gather a story. Everything was new and it was a very steep learning curve.”
Yet, despite that curve, Ferguson encountered lessons that helped her in her later assignments.
“It taught me about being with soldiers without getting in their way, and it also reminded me about the cost of being embedded,” Ferguson said. “I was cognizant of being embedded versus the cost of great military access.”
Ferguson says that in addition to having a relentless curiosity about the world and a love of talking to people, reporters should stay with the story they know is important — to keep their eye on the story that matters (as is the case with her later reporting from Afghanistan), and avoid following the herd. She encourages reporters to not be swayed by what other reporters are doing. “Don’t be distracted by what everyone else is covering. Search out stories that are not being told. That’s where you should be — not following the pack.”
“The one thing you have control over is your craft; be the best writer, be the best broadcaster,” she added. “Be undeniably brilliant — you have control over that. If there is quality to your work, that is the most reliable way to move forward.”
Christina Lamb, chief foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times in the United Kinbgdom, never envisioned being a war correspondent. Yet, while she was working in Birmingham, England, a surprise invitation to the 1987 wedding of Benazir Bhutto in Karachi, Pakistan, changed everything. Bhutto, who would later become the country’s prime minister, had been living in the UK and was returning to Pakistan to try to topple the leadership at the time — a military dictatorship.
Lamb wanted to cover that transition. However, men were still deciding the slant and prominence of foreign coverage, and no foreign editor working at British publications at the time was interested in Pakistan. But there was interest in Afghanistan, occupied at that time by the Soviet Union, and she began covering the Soviet-Afghanistan War as a freelancer, setting up a base in the city of Peshawar and traveling in and out of the area to cover the conflict.
Lamb arrived with no preconception or assumption of what would happen and questioned what she saw when she arrived.
“A journalist’s job is to report what is happening no matter how uncomfortable it is,” Lamb said.
Lamb, like Ferguson, was not interested in covering the ongoing fighting that drew the attention of other reporters, but instead was interested in taking a humanistic approach — covering life during conflict and how people kept going and adapted.
Lamb felt a significant obligation to make sure the stories of the people whose lives were upended by conflict were told.
“The fighting does not interest me,” Lamb said. “I’m interested in how people are living during conflict: how do you keep things together, how do you keep education going, how do you move forward?”
Lamb did her job based on what others were not covering.
“I did it differently because I was interested in what happened to women, and I saw the male reporters weren’t the least bit interested,” Lamb said. “From the start, I was always interested in telling people’s stories and cared passionately about the writing as well as wanting desperately to make people back home care about the issues. It seemed the last thing we should do was turn away.”
In addition to reporting the story, much of the work Lamb did during the Soviet-Afghanistan War was focused on logistics.
“Ninety percent of my job was finding a way to get the story back,” Lamb said, noting she had to use Telex or an international operator to file her stories, and traveled with wires and screwdrivers to connect into phones. “It was complicated getting the story back. I would go for weeks, and when I wrote my story, I had a good grasp of what was going on.”
As the culture of foreign reporting continues to evolve, Lamb says it’s important to know your limits and not be afraid to talk about concerns. For example, in the case of reporters with post-traumatic stress disorder, originally it was something not talked about: the story was that the reporter was away on holiday.
“You have to be careful, because you are seeing a lot of terrible things and you can’t pretend it doesn’t have an effect on you,” Lamb said.
Now a freelance correspondent in Paris for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers, Kim Willsher began covering conflict in 1991 from Croatia as the country declared independence from the former Yugoslavia. While Yugoslav and Serbian troops sought control of the country, Willsher’s assignment from the Mail on Sunday in London was to get to the city of Dubrovnik and report on the attacks and destruction there. However, her attempts to get into Dubrovnik failed, as she came under fire from Serbian troops.
“The second time, me, the photographer and another journalist ended up hiding behind a wall in the mountains for about six hours while Serbian forces tried to kill us even as we shouted ‘Don’t shoot, English journalists!’”
Her loose assignment: To report on what was happening as she travelled throughout Croatia. Willsher and photographer Lynn Hilton recognized the pressure to find stories, especially ones that her colleagues at the Mail’s daily counterpart weren’t doing.
“I felt it was important that we do the job and do it well … and prove that we were good at what we were doing,” Willsher said. “We had to come up with something that was broader and deeper.”
Willsher, who previously covered stories including Chernobyl and the Romanian revolution, adapted the same reporting philosophy that guided both Ferguson and Lamb, and wanted to report on history being made and to highlight the atrocities that occurred. Willsher said that the excitement of covering the conflict was not a factor in her reporting.
“I think a big factor was proving that I, a woman, could do it at a time when editors were still reluctant to send women reporters to cover conflicts, and perhaps even more importantly as a professional journalist, to be covering the biggest story,” Willsher said. “My interest in covering conflicts wasn’t about how many tanks there were, but the inevitable effect of conflict on
people. I wanted to shine a light in those dark corners and make readers interested and care about what was happening to people, mostly civilians, caught in the middle of war or other life-changing events. It was important to highlight that.”
Indeed, weapons and tactics were taking up the bulk of the reporting on the war.
“The focus was on the armed forces; concentrating on the human stories was unique at the time,” Willsher said. “Now? No reporter would not think about the human aspect of things.”
Willsher echoes advice about being persistent and encourages young journalists to keep going and not give up in spite of the challenges the industry faces.
Ultimately, no matter the subject, Willsher says everyone has a story to tell — and with time and a little patience, that story can be told, and it gives her professional satisfaction to be able to tell those stories.
“Always the focus for me in any reporting has been finding the story — facts and details — in any given situation and writing the story in an accurate, balanced way and as objectively as possible,” Willsher said. “There are stories people want to tell and stories people don’t want told, usually for nefarious reasons, and there’s a certain satisfaction in both. I feel it is a great privilege to listen to an ordinary individual’s personal experience, good or bad, and be in a position to give them a voice, especially in situations when they do not have one.”
Courtney Kube, who covers the Pentagon and the Defense Department for NBC News, knows logistics well. Before taking on her role as correspondent, she was the network’s producer at the Pentagon and the State Department. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Kube originally planned to be a doctor, but she was interested in working in television from a production standpoint. She changed her career track and thesis, and went to work for NBC’s Washington bureau, starting with “Meet the Press with Tim Russert,” before taking on her producer role.
“I never even considered covering conflict when I started at NBC News,” Kube said. “It was a shock, but I feel fortunate, because it was a good fit for me.”
Kube began covering Afghanistan and the U.S. military’s involvement at a time when embeds with troops were frequent.
“There were tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they had the infrastructure to support reporters out with troops beyond the bigger bases,” Kube said. “That was my favorite part by far — going out to the more remote combat outposts or forward-operating bases and seeing what life was really like for the U.S. military there. It was dynamic and exciting and sometimes scary, but those are my favorite memories of my time in conflict areas.”
Yet, while Kube said she was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, she came to enjoy the challenges of covering Afghanistan.
“I found the situation there so complex and enjoyed the logistical challenges of gathering information and video and trying to feed it from very remote areas,” Kube said.
Indeed, when she transitioned to the correspondent role from a producer role, Kube’s work with logistics helped during the transition.
“I fit in better doing the logistics,” Kube said. “I look at it more versus other aspects; being a producer meant you were constantly learning.”
Kube said her thoughts around her reporting from the military have evolved over time. When she returned to the field after getting married, she was concerned about something happening, and that her husband would become a widower. She also struggles seeing kids in conflict zones.
“It will always be difficult no matter how long you cover it,” Kube said, adding that reporting can be cathartic and that she has supportive colleagues who work both in front of and behind the camera. Yet the stories from the field are the ones most rewarding for Kube, and she considers it a privilege to be able to report these stories back to the U.S.
Kube added that you should know all the details up front when making special arrangements for reporting — something that was key when she would later meet with U.S. officials to discuss reporting with the military in Syria. Kube encourages being clear about what you’ll see to what kind of support you need, and to be persistent. “Don’t take no for an answer,” she said.
“Personally, traveling has gotten more difficult with more family commitments, but I still find it every bit as valuable and critical as ever,” Kube said. “The only way to really understand what is happening operationally, tactically, and strategically is to see it for yourself. One of the most important tools we have as journalists is the ability to see the situation firsthand.”
Indeed, thanks to the variety of stories that can be covered, Kube believes she has the best beat in not just Washington, D.C., but the world.
“I feel passionate and honored and that the American people value what I do,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” ,
Featured image: Jane Ferguson, special correspondent for the “PBS NewsHour” and contributor to The New Yorker. (Photo courtesy of Jane Ferguson)
Alex Veeneman, a longtime SPJ member, is a freelance journalist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.