More women are needed in investigative journalism

It's time for the media to counteract institutional barriers to women's entry in the field

In a recent blog post, Lyra McKee tells a story that took place at a feminist-run charity when she was starting off as an investigative reporter (The brackets are McKee’s).

One day, we were in their office when the subject of my career post-university came up. “I don’t think you could be an investigative reporter,” one of them said. “You’re so nice and so small.” [I’m slim and just over five foot].

I didn’t know what my height or manners had to do with my reporting ability. She continued:

“Person X [name redacted] is an investigative reporter. He has to go drinking with loyalist terrorists in bars; that’s how he gets his stories. Could you really picture yourself doing that?”

Remember the context here: this woman was a dyed-in-the-wool feminist. Her comments weren’t motivated by sexism.

This conversation is a shame (and reminiscent of the Said to Lady Journos tumblr), but McKee’s point is broader: Investigative journalism is all about looking into crime, political corruption and other malfeasance, and that kind of work makes enemies. As Lindsay Beyerstein tweeted during a Twitter conversation called #ladymuck on investigative journalism hosted by the Women’s Media Center, “Investigative reporting is part of the immune system of democracy. We ID the muck so it can be cleaned up.” Some people (including editors and journalists, and sometimes even female journalists) don’t think that women can be good investigative journalists because they’re worried about how physically vulnerable women can be when they get in that muck.

That’s why it doesn’t seem strange that there aren’t equal numbers of female and male investigative journalists, even though women seem to outnumber men at journalism schools, according to Sheila S. Coronel, director of Columbia’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, who also took a look this week at the question of why men dominate investigative journalism.

“The face of watchdog journalism is male,” Coronel said in her blog post, but noted that this reflects the smaller number of women in journalism; women make up only 37 percent of newspaper staff, according to the Women’s Media Center. All those women journalism students likely left for public relations and online journalism, while men are more likely to pursue newspaper, wire service, TV, and radio jobs.

This is too bad, Coronel said in an email to CJR. “Having more women journalists means women’s perspectives on policy and other issues are represented more fully and women’s concerns are reflected on the front pages, not relegated to the ‘lighter’ sections of the newspaper,” she wrote.

In the end, says Kiera Feldman, a reporter for The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund and a contributor to The Nation, “the onus is on institutions to figure out why the numbers are what they are — and what they need to do about it.”

So, how can we — or news organizations and journalism schools — encourage women to become investigative journalists?

First, we need to remember that women journalists are, in fact, more vulnerable than men. Though most investigative reporting done in the US is not dangerous, reporting abroad can be—especially, Coronel wrote, “in countries where the rule of law is weak and the state is unable or unwilling to provide protection to journalists.”

McKee, who is based in Belfast, noted that Northern Ireland doesn’t have the same protections as the US and that reporters have been attacked by terrorists. She added, “I’ve had government officials send veiled threats/bribes through different channels.”

This means that news organizations must find ways to help protect women and to support them if they are assaulted. Right now, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Women who have been assaulted on the job just don’t feel comfortable telling their employers what happened. In a 2011 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists said that many women who have been sexually assaulted while reporting never tell their editors. They worried both about the stigma attached to being assaulted and about the possibility that their editors would keep them away from future plum assignments. Said one reporter to CPJ: “I just did not want them to think of me as a girl. Especially when I am trying to be equal to, and better than, the boys. I may have told a female editor though, had I had one.”

This is a problem. Sexual assault — and the threat of sexual assault — is used to intimidate female journalists into not doing their job, or as reprisal for women who do their jobs too well. As McKee said, “The more people there are with an interest in seeing a story not published, the more dangerous reporting the story is.”

Newsrooms must work to counter this, so that women feel more free to enter into investigative work, said Coronel—they “should be havens where women are able to speak freely about the dangers they face or have faced. They should be assured that speaking out would not have repercussions on their work and careers and on how they are perceived by their editors and peers,” she said.

Second, women need mentors and role models. “We need to say to young reporters, ‘Hey, did you know this is an option? That you could do this?’” McKee said. “I think being an investigative journalist is a lot like [being an entrepreneur]: only those born with a crazy gene get a kick out of it, because it’s such hard work and comes with so many ups and downs. Those ‘born’ with that gene need mentors and guidance.” (McKee has compiled a list of some female investigative journalists here.)

Coronel said that that kind of mentorship is exactly what she found as a young journalist in the Philippines in the 1980s and ’90s. “I benefitted immensely from the support, encouragement, and mentorship provided by women colleagues and editors.” She added that journalism schools needed more women on the faculty and should make sure that readings regularly highlight work by women.

Third, women themselves need to step up. “We don’t sell ourselves enough,” McKee said. She attributes her own success in part to being gay and, therefore, unafraid to break gender norms. “Being ‘ladylike’ was never a concern for me, because I was always a tomboy. I think many women are a little more reluctant to step forward and push themselves out there. It’s like there’s an expectation of their gender they feel they must adhere to.”

But that doesn’t mean institutions are off the hook: They should “do an internal analysis and implement a plan of action. It’s as easy as that. One would think that gatekeepers in the field of journalism would be very well-versed in the gathering of data,” Feldman said.

Women make up half of society — and their interests aren’t confined to the Style pages. Instead, their struggles need to be examined across our news media, and having a significant number of women in the ranks of investigative journalists will help ensure that. But also, women should be investigative journalists because they have the ability to be. As Coronel said, “The media are a powerful institution. For too long, media power has been in the hands of men. Why shouldn’t women also share the power to shape public discourse, to frame the terms of policy debate, to be a watchdog for the public interest?”

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: , ,