News next: a journalism teacher's diary

February 20, 2011

Let’s be careful out there

In the six years that my students have reported for The Hunts Point Express, no one has been a victim of a crime, but the women reporters have been victimized by crude remarks, whistles and catcalls. Some have responded with anger; some with fear. Some have pushed forward aggressively; some have retreated in shame.

Reporting from an unfamiliar place always has its risks, and the risks are especially acute for women.

Sabrina Tavernise

New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise knows the dangers. In a piece in this week’s paper headlined “Reporting While Female,”she recalls learning the hard way.

Last winter, I reported on a religious festival in Pakistan, attended by thousands of worshipers. There were no women, at least that I could see. As I waded through the crowds, I held my breath, looking behind me every few seconds, warding off gropers, pushing them away with my hands.

Crowds can be a dangerous place for reporters, especially during war or unrest. Just last Friday, colleagues in Bahrain found themselves under fire from a helicopter that seemed to have singled them out as targets.

But women reporters face another set of challenges. We are often harassed in ways that male colleagues are not. This is a hazard of the job that most of us have experienced and few of us talk about.

Among the precautions she finds necessary is taking care with how she dresses.

I have worked in a half-dozen countries since the late 1990s, including Lebanon, Gaza in Israel, Pakistan, Turkey and Russia. In none of these places was I dragged off and raped, but I have encountered abuse in many of them. The assaults usually took place in crowds, where I was pinned in place by men.

The risk of something happening is especially high when all the rules have fallen away and society is held together by a sense that anything can happen. This was the case for me in Baghdad in 2003 at the gun market, when a crowd of young men, impoverished and not used to seeing foreigners, first started touching me, and then began ripping at my clothes. A colleague helped me fend them off.

It was a beginner’s mistake. I was wearing pants, baggy and formless, but still looking nothing like any of the women in the area, who all wore abayas, black sheaths completely covering their bodies. That same day I went to an Iraqi clothing shop to stock up on ankle-length jean skirts and shirts that reached to mid-thigh.

I’ve spent part of the last week introducing a group of Dutch journalism students to the South Bronx, a place that for them–and for many New Yorkers, too–seems exotic and, at times, dangerous.

When two women in their 20s asked if it would be foolhardy to arrive in Hunts Point while it was still dark in order to shoot a sunrise as the introduction to a video they’re making about an order of cloistered nuns, I had to pause.

As it is in the rest of the city, crime is way down in Hunts Point. But poor neighborhoods suffer more from crime than affluent ones. And three women have reported being raped in the first five weeks of this year.

The Dutch reporters want to shoot at the neighborhood’s residential crossroads, where the post office, the huge BankNote building housing schools and offices and a large and a heavily-used park make the street as safe as any in the city by day. But The Hunts Point Express has recently reported that at night prostitutes troll the same street, and in the morning, groups of homeless men hanging out have raised local anxiety.

The best advice I could give was for the women to keep their equipment covered up, to walk from the subway on the commercial street a couple of blocks away from their destination, instead of taking the more direct route on quiet street of small rowhouses, and to be aware of their surroundings. And I’m glad it’s winter, when they’ll be wearing bulky coats and hats, and it will be less obvious that they’re attractive.

Men may be less likely to be harassed, but they need to heed the same advice to avoid becoming victims. Stay on self-policing streets–well-lit streets where there’s traffic, other pedestrians, stores. Don’t make yourself a target. Don’t look scared or lost. Don’t dress in a way that marks you as an outsider.

1 Comment »

  1. When I posted a link to this piece on Facebook, veteran reporter Bob Kappstatter, the longtime Bronx Bureau Chief of the Daily News, commented: “From long years in this business of going into crappy nabes at night and housing projects that even cops warned me about, the most important thing to keep in mind is ATTITUDE. Look like you’re there for a reason – ’cause you are! Don’t look like a nervous rabbit.
    It IS tougher for women. But the rule should apply even more so.”

    Comment by Bernard L. Stein — February 20, 2011 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: