With the casualties continuing to rise in Russia’s months-long invasion of Ukraine, reporters in the field face a daily tightrope walk between getting the story and potentially getting killed. At least 14 journalists have already died in the conflict, which broke out when Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“It is something you’re constantly grappling with, and trying to set boundaries to ensure that it doesn’t get out of hand, because in a situation like this, where you have a massive war unfolding, you do feel, understandably, as a journalist like you want to be here every step of the way,” Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, tells Variety. “If I’m being really honest, I also feel that there are situations where, as a mother, there’s a limit to how long I can be away from my kids. It is a real struggle, and I don’t want to try to sugarcoat it and pretend like it’s some easy thing to go gallivanting off to some war zone and leave your little ones behind. It’s really painful and really tough.”
Sky News special correspondent Alex Crawford, who spent almost a decade covering Syria before traveling to Ukraine in February, says figuring out how to balance the risk “is the million-dollar question. And the one time you get it wrong you’ll get a bullet through the side of you.”
Crawford’s colleague, Sky News chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay, was shot near Ukraine’s capital Kyiv in February after his car was ambushed. Ramsay’s cameraman, Richie Mockler, was also shot twice, but survived thanks to his body armor.
“Especially in a war like this, you can take absolutely every precaution that you’ve learned through years of studying and experience and having your own personal [risk assessment] radar, and it can still go horribly wrong, as we’ve seen from the really experienced crews, correspondents who have been killed and injured,” Crawford says.
Even seasoned war correspondent Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who is sharing her years of knowledge with her younger colleagues stationed in Ukraine, has been surprised by the way this invasion has unfolded.
“There was one night early on where there were some young people there who hadn’t really experienced war before,” Raddatz says. “And I went around and said, ‘Close all the curtains. Close all the drapes. And make sure if you hear a sound, don’t run to the window because of all of those horrible things that can hurt and kill people.’ But then it was just a waiting game. You could tell in the city it was just getting tenser and tenser.
“On the evening of the invasion, I put out a tweet, and I rarely ever tweet, but I got a text, literally just hours before the first strikes, from a senior Pentagon official who said, ‘You are likely in the last few hours of peace on the European continent for a long time to come. Be careful.’”
For women in the field, there are additional factors to grapple with, not the least being judgment about their decision to be there in the first place. Ward says there was “some surprise” from people when she told them she planned to continue working as a war correspondent after having children. “There’s often an assumption that you would move to a different beat, which would require you to take fewer risks or travel less.”
CBS News’ Holly Williams says that it’s parenthood, not “whether we’re men or women,” that really affects journalists in this position, noting “you’re constantly juggling things while you’re in the field.”
“I remember trying to organize my daughter’s piano lesson that she was late for while they were shelling quite close by to us in Mosul, during the fight against ISIS,” Williams recalls of her time in Iraq. “I had the piano teacher on the line and my child’s babysitter on the line and she was late, and there’s this massive crisis going on and we could hear shelling.”
But escaping gender bias is largely unavoidable in this line of work, and Fox News foreign correspondent Alex Hogan says she has experienced probing questions her male counterparts don’t have to deal with. “I often get asked how my partner feels about me coming here,” she says. “And I know that men are not getting those same questions asked about their wives.”
Hadas Grinberg, a crime reporter for Israeli public broadcaster Kan News who petitioned her manager to let her travel to Ukraine, even found herself having to defend her wardrobe choices at one point. Despite being one of the first journalists in the world to access the mass grave in Bucha, after her report was broadcast, the chatter online was focused on her pink coat. “Thousands of people criticized [it],” she says, explaining that she had chosen that coat because it was the warmest one she owned in Ukraine, where temperatures in February rarely breach 36 degrees. “If it was a man, then no one would talk about the color of his coat or his nails or his hair.”
Despite the number of award-winning and highly regarded female war correspondents, the field is still largely male-dominated. Fox News’ Yonat Friling, a senior field producer recently stationed in Ukraine, says she saw more women reporting on the ground in Ukraine compared to other war environments. “But I think we were less than a third of the crews there,” she says. “It still is considered to be a very ‘manly’ occupation.”
Sometimes, that has its advantages. “Almost every man with a gun is less intimidated by a woman [than a man],” Crawford says. Whenever the Sky News reporter is driven through a war zone, she insists on sitting in the front passenger seat so that hers is the first face soldiers can see. When landing in Ukraine recently, she deliberately hired a female driver for the journey from Lviv to Kyiv, so there would be two female faces at the front.
“You are not perceived as aggressive or as alpha when we encounter people in the field,” Friling concurs.
Lyse Doucet, BBC’s chief international correspondent and senior presenter, says she doesn’t notice significant differences between herself and her male colleagues but acknowledges that, as a woman, she does sometimes elicit a more emotional response from her sources. Doucet has had “military commanders break down crying” when speaking to her, she says, “because they feel they need to talk to somebody.”
“At one level, it’s the nice end of the spectrum, it’s chivalry,” Doucet adds. “At the other end, it’s misogyny or chauvinism that sometimes men do see women as the softer, gentler [sex].”
But it’s true that female war reporters possess a unique insight into what thousands of Ukrainian women are experiencing. “Straight away when you’re seeing mothers or fear about being raped or fear about looking after your elderly parents and leaving them behind, or fear about looking after a child who’s crying, you know that and you can’t account for that,” says Crawford. “You can’t learn that in a book. You can’t learn it from seeing someone else do it. … There’s a natural connection all the time with fellow females, which equips you and gives you the weapons to do a damn good job.”
In some cases, reporters even see themselves and the women they love in the wives, mothers and daughters whose lives are falling apart before their eyes. “Every time I see a Ukrainian mother with her children and she has that look of loss on her face, and she doesn’t know where she’s going, she doesn’t know who these strangers are, if she can trust them, the language barrier, the flow of emotions on their faces — I immediately think back to my grandmother, who was a refugee,” says Fox News’ Aishah Hasnie, who is stationed at the border in Poland. “And it really is emotional for me. I don’t know if I want to call it a female crisis, but it’s impacting women in a very different way because the majority of refugees are women.”
To date, the war has led to at least 40,000 casualties, approximately 11 million displaced people and $565 billion in property damage.
“The last week was particularly difficult because I was covering the liberated towns,” says CBS News’ Debora Patta, who has been in Ukraine for a month. “Horrific scenes of streets littered with war crimes and Russian atrocities were what we had to cover and see. Mass graves of citizens who were executed with their hands behind their backs at point-blank range. Those images are always incredibly difficult to deal with. The kind of thing you naturally want to turn away from, but you have to look so that you could report and give voice to the horror that’s happening.”
Vice News correspondent Hind Hassan, who describes the entire city of Kharkiv as a “frontline,” says she witnessed an unsettling juxtaposition between the number of lives already lost and the battle that continues to rage on.
“We were in a morgue where bodies were overflowing,” she says. “There wasn’t enough room for the bodies inside the morgue and they were out in the courtyard. And whilst we were there, we had a huge explosion, which turned out to be just around the corner, and it just shook the grounds of the morgue and everybody went to hide.
“It struck me that even in their death, the victims of this war couldn’t escape the war,” says Hassan.
There is also ongoing concern for the people left behind, especially the Ukrainian fixers and drivers and journalists the foreign reporters have spent the past three months working alongside. “You do feel this solidarity because when you’re on a very intense assignment like Ukraine was — and which is not just intense, but has a long duration — your colleagues become your family,” Doucet says. “And so you still think about them when you’re not there. Because this is never just a story for us.”
Amid the tragedy of the war in Ukraine comes a chance for female correspondents to affect the future of their field by normalizing their presence.
“I’m proud of myself. I’m a grandmother now and my daughter explained to [my granddaughters] what I was doing,” Raddatz says. “And they were out at a friend’s house and somebody said, ‘Where’s your grandma?’ And my granddaughter, who is 6 years old, said, ‘Oh, Grammy is at a war. Grammy is in a war because they started a war and so she’s in it.’
“They’re very proud of me and they watch — with a little censoring,” Raddatz says, underlining the importance of showing young girls what they can do.