What Being a Journalist Means to a Woman

I am not sure what people hear–or worse, what they assume–when I say that I am interested and involved in journalism. When asked by others what I hope to pursue in my career, I am greeted with unsure looks and questioning remarks. “Journalists are becoming obsolete,” one person has said to me. “Journalists are corrupt,” another has mentioned. To be honest, I’m insulted by most of the reactions I receive. Statements such as these two inherently offend not just a very deliberate and meaningful choice that I have made, but at a very basic level the second one, especially, wrongfully supposes the kind of journalist I would be, and even worse, the kind of person I am.

Journalism is not safe–not in the regard of offering a stable future, not in the physical sense for those who report from conflict and war, and especially not for women, whether in the midst of literal crossfire or barraged with threats without even leaving their desks. I think that if people understood and believed in journalism the way I do, then they might have at least slightly different responses.

In the late 1800s, Elizabeth Jane Cochran–better known by the pen name Nellie Bly–broke into the almost entirely male-dominated field of journalism. Refusing to be relegated to the women’s gossip and fashion sections, she is credited with essentially inventing investigative journalism. While still young, Bly responded to a column in Pittsburgh’s Dispatch that advocated women’s sole role as housewives by profiling the working women of Pittsburgh who relied upon their industrial jobs to keep their families alive. These women and girls were the subjects of some of her subsequent writing before she convinced the newspaper to send her to Mexico as a foreign correspondent.Let me repeat that: a young woman, in the 1800s, convinced a newspaper editor (a man) to send her to Mexico as a foreign correspondent for a metropolitan newspaper.

When she returned, only to be sent back to covering women’s topics (fashion, gossip, high society, etc.), Bly took off for New York and spent six months meeting over and over again with editors of the city’s biggest newspapers until, finally, Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World gave her an assignment: to cover cases of inmates at Blackwell’s Island, New York’s largest institution for the “mentally ill.” Whether Pulitzer genuinely believed in Bly’s courage and ability, or if he was attempting to send her home in total defeat, Bly proved her merit, entering Blackwell’s as a patient and compiling reports from the inside that would eventually become Ten Days in a Madhouse, a shocking expose of the cruelty suffered by patients in the institution. Bly’s reporting was the first of its kind, making way for further undercover investigations. After this, she continued to report on issues of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized, often the only journalist to cover stories from the point of view of these parties.

Bly’s most famous achievement came when she raced fellow journalist Elizabeth Bisland around the world, both hoping to beat each other as well as the 80-day trip imagined by Jules Verne. Noted for accomplishing the feat in 72 days, Bly had actually originally proposed a similar trip when she first met with New York editors, hoping to travel back to the United States in the holds of ships where poor immigrants stowed away for the journey to America.

Nellie Bly, though celebrated for her talent and ambition, also received taunts and criticism from plenty, and men in particular. She was discouraged by the man who would eventually send her to Blackwell’s Island and around the world, and her journalism was often criticized as “self-aggrandizing” or that she let too much of herself and her experience into her writing.

Today, in the year when Nellie Bly would have turned 150, not much can be said about the improvement of condition and treatment of women in journalism. Certainly women make up much more of the press corps today than they did in the 19th and 20th centuries, but they still do not have nearly as much dominance in the field as do their male counterparts. When women do break into the field, they are often met with insult and threat, making their jobs extraordinarily difficult and making it an industry in which women do not feel comfortable pursuing careers.

Take, as just one example, Amanda Hess, who wrote for Pacific Standard on “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” A writer since 2007, Hess began receiving rape and death threats via Twitter while vacationing in Palm Springs, where the police were wholly unhelpful in attempting to identify her attackers. In her detailed account of these struggles, Hess writes, tellingly:

None of this makes me exceptional. It just makes me a woman with an Internet connection. Here’s just a sampling of the noxious online commentary directed at other women in recent years. To Alyssa Royse, a sex and relationships blogger, for saying that she hated The Dark Knight: “you are clearly retarded, i hope someone shoots then rapes you.” To Kathy Sierra, a technology writer, for blogging about software, coding, and design: “i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” To Lindy West, a writer at the women’s website Jezebel, for critiquing a comedian’s rape joke: “I just want to rape her with a traffic cone.” To Rebecca Watson, an atheist commentator, for blogging about sexism in the skeptic community: “If I lived in Boston I’d put a bullet in your brain.” To Catherine Mayer, a journalist at Time magazine, for no particular reason: “A BOMB HAS BEEN PLACED OUTSIDE YOUR HOME. IT WILL GO OFF AT EXACTLY 10:47 PM ON A TIMER AND TRIGGER DESTROYING EVERYTHING.”

These are not rare occurrences for many women in journalism, but it seems to be a situation of which many people are wholly unaware, otherwise I would think people would not make the assumptions they do when I speak of my hope to become a journalist myself. They are not worried about my safety or well-being. They know nothing of these women, from Nellie Bly more than a century ago to Amanda Hess today, and they do not know that these are who I speak of when I speak of journalists. I speak of brave women (and men!) who are fair and ethical, trying to do good through their craft and instead being admonished, deterred, threatened, and, in many places with little to no press freedom, kidnapped, tortured, and killed.

I do not hope to be a journalist for the money, if there even is much. I do not hope to be a journalist for the fame, which only leads to danger, it seems. I hope to be a journalist because despite such dangers and downfalls, I believe too many people take news and reporting for granted. They consume the information that journalists risk their lives and careers to obtain, not for themselves, but for everyone else and the betterment of society. I hope to be a journalist to defy the discouragement and the ill fate of being a woman in the media.

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