As rebels stormed Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s lavish Tripoli compound in August, one foreign correspondent, Alex Crawford of Sky News, was there to cover the action. At one point, she even interviewed an ecstatic rebel fighter wearing one of Gadhafi’s military caps stolen from the dictator’s master bedroom. Crawford has been called the journalistic face of the Libyan conflict. But she is also a mother, and her presence at the deadly conflict has reignited a familiar debate over whether female correspondents, mothers in particular, belong on the front lines of a conflict zone. Is it legitimate to question whether they should be putting themselves at risk in deadly environments while their children grow up far away, or are such doubts inherently sexist?
Crawford, 49, is a veteran journalist, having worked at Sky News since its founding in 1989. After becoming a foreign correspondent for the network in 2006, she has reported from hostile zones including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Tunisia and Egypt. Her coverage of the 2008 Mumbai attacks won Sky News a BAFTA, and she was also awarded the 2010 Woman Journalist of the Year by Women in Film and Television, among other awards. According to her company bio, she has been “arrested, detained, interrogated and faced live bullets, tear-gassing, rubber bullets, IEDs, and mortar shells.”
But Crawford, who lives with her family in Johannesburg, South Africa, also has four young children—her oldest is 14—and has faced criticism for neglecting her duties of motherhood. After all, say critics, women are more nurturing than men, and children need their mothers. “I knew having a child would mean I would miss lots of stories and would never again be the first one inside a city under siege or get the first interview with a dictator,” wrote Janine di Giovanni, a journalist and mother, in the Daily Mail, addressing the controversy, “but I would have pages and pages of diaries filled with memories of [her son] Luka’s first tooth and witness the first moment he walked.” It was a sentiment that Crawford herself admitted to feeling when she spoke via satellite from Tripoli at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, saying “I hope I’m a role model for my daughters, although my children say, ‘Why can’t you be a dinner lady at school?’ ”
But Crawford bristles at the notion that people question whether it is responsible of her to do her job while also being a mother, calling such a proposition “really insulting and very, very sexist.” Her husband, a journalist at the Independent who stays at home with the kids while she is away on assignment, wrote a column defending his wife against doubters “who tried to pigeonhole her as a woman, wife and mother.” Indeed, Crawford’s colleague in Libya, Sky News correspondent Stuart Ramsay, is a father of three and has faced none of the scrutiny that Crawford has endured. The fact that reporting the news in a war zone is dangerous and potentially fatal shouldn’t make a difference. “There are dangers everywhere,” said Crawford, “even on a scooter in London.”