May 1, 2011

In an interview with 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley, CBS reporter Lara Logan recounted the day she was sexually assaulted by a mob of 200 to 300 men while covering the protests in Egypt.

“There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the process of dying,” Logan told Pelley. “I thought not only am I going to die, but it’s going to be just a torturous death that’s going to go on forever.”

Logan went into detail about the assault, saying members of the mob separated her from her cameraman and producer, and later raped her.

Learning more about journalists who are assaulted

Logan’s attack has renewed attention to female journalists getting sexually assaulted while on the job. Lauren Wolfe, senior editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists, has interviewed journalists in the Middle East, Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan and South Africa for a lengthy story she’s working on about the issue.

“I talked to women who experienced constant groping. I spoke to women who were raped in the course of their reporting or in retribution for their reporting,” Wolfe said in a phone interview. “It’s been really interesting, for me at least, to see how many people want to tell me their stories — how many people say they think it’s important that we get a picture of this issue.”

Wolfe has talked to foreign correspondents as well as local reporters who live in war zones and aren’t heard about as often here in the U.S.

“They can’t leave — that’s their lives. What happens to them?” Wolfe said. “A lot of the focus has been on foreign correspondents, and it’s great to bring to light what’s happening, but I do think it’s important to focus on local journalists as well. Local journalists really experience the brunt of violence.” According to CPJ statistics, of all the journalists reportedly killed since 1992, 87 percent were local reporters.

Wolfe said her goal is to give people a better sense of the types of sexual assault journalists face, and with what frequency.

“By examining issues like self-reporting and accountability for assaults, I hope that we can break the stigma that surrounds this part of the profession,” said Wolfe, whose story is set to come out in a couple of weeks. “Deliberate attacks on the media, sexual or otherwise, are meant to intimidate journalists from reporting the news. It’s a press freedom issue.”

CPJ has been criticized in the past for not compiling enough data about journalists who have been victims of sexual violence. The reason, Wolfe said, is because journalists don’t typically report sexual assaults to CPJ and data is therefore unavailable. She noted that CPJ is revising its handbook to better address sexual violence and said journalists have called CPJ to tell personal stories of rape or molestation, but usually ask that the conversations not be shared.

Unraveling the stigma around reporting sexual violence

In writing her story, Wolfe wants to try to figure out whether the stigma around reporting sexual assault has to do with media culture, local cultures, or both.

Countries such as Libya carry severe stigmas around sexual violence. Some women are shunned or cast out by their families. Rape there is treated “as a crime against the honor of a woman or her family, rather than as an attack on the woman herself,” The New York Times recently reported in a story about a woman who was repeatedly raped by members of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s militia. The woman, who was called a prostitute and a thief by Qaddafi’s state television network, took her case to the international media.

When you’re part of the media and you’ve been assaulted, sharing your story can cause added distress. In a Columbia Journalism Review piece about female journalists being attacked while on the job, Judith Matloff wrote:

“In the words of an American correspondent who awoke in her Baghdad compound to find her security guard’s head in her lap, ‘I don’t want it out there, for people to look at me and think, “Hmmm. This guy did that to her, yuck.’” I don’t want to be viewed in my worst vulnerability.”

Others in the media choose not to silently struggle. Logan told The New York Times’ Brian Stelter that CBS’ statement about her sexual assault “didn’t leave me to carry the burden alone, like my dirty little secret, something that I had to be ashamed of.”

During her “60 Minutes” interview, Logan said her colleagues were proud that she had broken the silence.

“Women never complain about incidents of sexual violence because you don’t want someone to say, ‘Well, women shouldn’t be out there,’ ” Logan said. “But I think there are a lot of women who experience these kinds of things as journalists and they don’t want it to stop their job, because they do it for the same reasons as me — they are committed to what they do. They are not adrenaline junkies you know, they’re not glory hounds, they do it because they believe in being journalists.”

The dangers that female journalists face when covering conflict have prompted some to question whether news organizations should “allow” women to go to war zones. Lynsey Addario, who was one of the four New York Times journalists kidnapped in Libya earlier this year, said she considers such questions to be “grossly offensive.”

“If a woman wants to be a war photographer, she should. It’s important,” Addario wrote in a first-person essay on the Times’ Lens blog. “Women offer a different perspective. We have access to women on a different level than men have, just as male photographers have a different relationship with the men they’re covering.” Addario said she’s sure she’ll cover another war because “It’s what I do.”

An issue that both women and men face

Addario, who said she was groped by a dozen men, doesn’t think that what happened to her was any worse than what happened to the three male photographers who were also kidnapped with her and beaten.

Both men and women face dangers in war zones. The media was reminded of this just a couple of weeks ago when photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed while documenting the conflict in Libya. Some male journalists have been open about the dangers they’ve faced, including Umar Cheema, a journalist who was kidnapped and molested while reporting out of Islamabad last year.

Wolfe said she hopes that Logan and other journalists’ decision to go public with their stories will motivate others to do the same — and in the long run make it easier to understand the scope of the issue and create awareness.

“We don’t have enough statistical research to find out how widespread sexual assault is among female journalists,” Wolfe said, “and I think it’s time we figure that out.”

Watch video of Lara Logan tell her story on “60 Minutes”:

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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