Wars have often turned jobbing journalists into household names and given them a heroic lustre in the process. And anyone who was surfing TV channels in the UK and beyond on Sunday night would have had to agree that one flak-jacket hard-hat wearing reporter stood out from all the other microphone-toting media types: Sky News’s Alex Crawford.
While her rivals at the BBC were miles from the action pontificating on what might be happening in Tripoli, Crawford was on a truck surrounded by rebel fighters and ululating locals. Guns fired into the night sky but, whether they were friendly fire or snipers’ pot shots, it didn’t seem to bother Alex, who interviewed people from the back of her vehicle as it edged its way slowly through the traffic into the falling capital. It’s a state of affairs that prompted BBC World News editor Jon Williams to admit today that Crawford had shown tenacity and produced “compelling coverage” (while insisting it was just too dangerous for his team to follow suit).
What’s also remarkable is that the admittedly shaky footage was produced with the aid of an Apple Mac Pro laptop and a mini satellite dish run off the vehicle’s cigarette lighter. Its immediacy was riveting but more important was the solid journalism of Crawford, who remained a calm commentator, never allowing the excitement unfolding around her to sway her judgement. And this was not Twitter-era media but old-fashioned frontline reporting that was so much more than the technology that delivered it. Who cares what the banter was in chatrooms? This was real.
Crawford joins a long list of smart war correspondents including a large number of women from Martha Gellhorn in the Spanish Civil War to Margaret Bourke-White at Buchenwald, from the BBC’s Kate Adie (from the Gulf War to Yugoslavia) and Christiane Amanpour’s reports for CNN from just about anywhere a bomb was being dropped. Indeed, as other channels literally raced to catch up with events in Tripoli it was notable how many women found themselves on the frontline: Sara Sidner of CNN and Zeina Khodr of Al Jazeera English joined Crawford in Green Square. What also makes these reporters appearances striking is that they are often the only women on the streets: in Tripoli it was clear that while the men of the house were allowed to go out and celebrate, their wives and daughters were told to bolt the doors and stay home.
However, seasoned war reporter Mort Rosenblum cautions against thinking either men or women make better reporters in the midst of a battle, but he does say, “There is a certain sort of female correspondent that needs to prove that she is tougher, steelier, and harder than her male counterparts. With such determination they talk to the right people, find real sources, and manage to deconstruct the situation and reveal its complexity.”
He also laments the growing fragmentation of the modern media saying that it has descended into a cacophony of untrustworthy commentators. “When a good press corps works well, it works like the coyote: they’re loners that hunt their own tracks but when they come together they can work as a pack, preying on information and sharing it as a collective.” Perhaps, this is why these women are so effective out on the field. Without a male ego impeding their ability to co-operate, they share what’s necessary, tell the story, and it is to the benefit of us all. Although in this instance Crawford was clearly on her own trail.
Alex Crawford’s career will inevitably get a major boost and other channels will come courting. But perhaps the real victor here will be well-told stories, calm comment and wise judgement. Or what we like to call “journalism”.