Working as an investigative journalist is difficult; working as a woman investigative journalist adds extra layers of challenge, complexity, and frankly, aggravation and even harassment. At the 11th Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Hamburg (#GIJC19) in September, the many pressures of being a woman investigative journalist were on the agenda.
The largest gathering of investigative journalists from around the world takes place every two years. Co-hosted by GIJN, this year we were joined by our German partners, Netzwerke Recherche and Interlink Academy. #GIJC19 achieved a number of notable accomplishments. Along with a record crowd of 1,700 journalists from 130 countries, the conference achieved gender parity with both speakers and attendees. In addition, the majority of the conference organizing committee members were women, the conference included sessions focusing on issues of concern to women journalists, our keynote speaker was a woman, and childcare was available throughout the conference.
More and more women muckrakers are breaking important stories around the world. But despite increasing numbers and, to a lesser degree, more senior women in the business, there is still much to be done to fight inequality and discrimination. Women journalists, too, often pay a high personal price, and suffer from long hours and high levels of stress. It’s important to discuss these issues while celebrating the inspiring work being done by women muckrakers all over the world.
In one of the most popular and widely talked-about sessions at the conference, 10 women journalists shared their personal experiences, illuminating the state of journalism and the range of issues women face. They also spoke of their many “survival strategies,” practical ways to deal with obstacles they regularly confront.
At worst, these issues include sexual violence.
Shiori Ito, an independent journalist and filmmaker, is renowned for her book, Black Box, which documents her experience of rape by a senior journalist, and her unsuccessful efforts to have criminal charges brought against him. It’s a disturbing account that reveals profound sexism in Japan’s media and its institutions. In the session, she spoke about having to leave Japan to keep working as a journalist. The massive backlash and threats against her continue and she is being sued by the man she says raped her.
Ito spoke of her isolation and her wish for recognition and solidarity by Japanese media. But she also said this: “Maybe the story is personal and hard to face, but we have the tools and ability to investigate and that’s the power we have.” She said her investigative work and the solidarity of other women help her to deal with ongoing trauma.
Minna Knus-Galan, an investigative reporter for TV at Yle, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, shared that she was publicly called “an inexperienced girl reporter” — as a highly experienced journalist of nearly 40. Despite the fact that Finland is near the top in indices measuring press freedom, corruption, and socio-economic development, sexism remains endemic, she said. Calling out sexist comments and behavior is very difficult even in societies where men and women are apparently equal, as the MeToo movement has so clearly shown.
Alongside sexism and sexual abuse, stress was a recurring theme in these personal stories. Covering extreme violence can create stress and trauma in all journalists.
Marcela Turati, co-founder of Quinto Elemento Lab in Mexico, gave a moving account of how she and other female colleagues have tried to deal with the pain and fear — and the endless nightmares — from such reporting assignments as covering the victims of the drug war.
Women reporters thought they had to hide their fear from managers to avoid being reassigned to other beats, and so they weren’t seen as weak. So they drank and shared their thoughts and feelings in bars. But Turati and other women reporters knew they had to find better coping strategies, and they started sharing their feelings more openly with each other. They set up a WhatsApp group for mutual support when reporters needed to talk; they created “emotional deadlines” for female reporters who needed a break from reporting draining stories like the discovery of mass graves; they met in child-friendly locations; they went temazcales, traditional saunas, taking time out to share experiences in a relaxed setting; and they even invited shamans to give spiritual support to those who requested it at trainings on how to cover human rights abuses. She ended by asking us all to consider the many “non-macho ways” of dealing with stress, pain and violence – advisable for men as well as women.
That same day at the conference, a women’s networking session was attended by well over a hundred women. I co-moderated it with Namrata Sharma, the chairperson of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Nepal, who told me that during the event she was “struck by the passion and camaraderie that oozed out among the participants.” She said, “All the professionals who attended were united by one thing for sure: that women journalists need to work harder and justify themselves more than their male colleagues even today, no matter how qualified and experienced we are.”
The many interesting and prescient points were made during the networking session included:
- continued and widespread discrimination and inequality rooted in gender;
- lack of women in management;
- widespread harassment of women journalists online and offline;
- substantial issues of safety and security for women;
- lack of processes and policies within organizations to address sexual abuse, harassment, and discrimination (such as codes of conduct and their enforcement);
- need to take a proactive approach to gender equality and ensure best practices are shared and high standards are set and enforced;
- importance of language and ensuring critical, so-called “women’s” issues are addressed and not relegated to the category of “soft” stories;
- need for collective action, via associations of women journalists, trade unions, etc., to take these issues forward;
- need to share and use tools like a survey of women journalists in Switzerland that provided evidence to advocate for change.
It may seem like a long list of intractable issues, but I think most of the women at both sessions – and many, many others – are committed to doing their part to improve conditions for women reporters.
There was also a clear demand for a global network to share information and contacts on gender issues, and also on actual stories when relevant, as well as a place where the work of female muckrakers can be amplified and celebrated. We are delighted to report that GIJN is responding to this call.
It is also worth reminding readers that GIJN has recently published a resource for women journalists which addresses international and regional networks; issues of safety, discrimination and harassment; mentorship; grants, fellowships, and awards; female experts; and issues specific to women in investigative Journalism. The guide can be improved and GIJN welcomes all additions, new topics, and other suggestions to expand and improve this guide.
We want to do even better and welcome all ideas (email us) to improve the representation of women at our conferences and in the work we do between conferences.
Anne Koch is GIJN’s program director. She worked at BBC News for nearly 20 years, most recently as deputy director of the English World Service. Until 2017 she was a director at Transparency International.