International women journalists share their experience at investigative journalism conference

10 women journalists shared their experience of working as an investigative journalists and strategies they used in their professional work, from mental health strategies to balancing work and family, and investigating state-sponsored killings, at the 2019 Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Hamburg, Germany, on the conference’s only two all-women panels.

(Source: Nick Jaussi / Netzwerk Recherche)

Associated Press writer Marta Mendoza shared her experience of becoming a mother while working as a journalist and working with colleagues who become parents, and the “quiet preparations” that go into balancing work and parenthood. Mendoza, who had her children while working as a journalist and took three to four months of maternity leave for each child, said that one of the reasons she might have talked to management about parenthood is that she did not want management to not assign her to a story because she was pregnant or nursing, and that she did not want to be given special treatment because she is a mother.

Mendoza said that she has a “huge privilege” in that her husband became a stay-at-home father, and therefore they have an easier time moving the family when her career requires it. She said that there are different ways of navigating becoming parents as journalists, and that she does not want to “preach” about it, but she encourages those in the industry to support each other when they themselves become parents or when their colleagues become parents, and to advocate for each other in order to implement the required facilities to support members of the organizations who have children, such as having a nursing room set aside for breastfeeding mothers.

Patricia Evangelista, investigative reporter for the Filipino news outlet Rappler, whose story “Murder in Manila” won the 2019 Global Shining Light Award in the large outlet category, shared her experience of working with Rappler’s almost all-women team. Her organization is “a matriarchy,” Evangelista said. It is led by women and staffed by mostly women, and values openness and caring for each other.

For the last three years, Evangelista has investigated the “War on Drugs” in the Philippines, the result of which is “Murder in Manila.” Evangelista said that when she started reporting the story, her management team held a security briefing. They told her to check in, to leave before sundown, to make sure she does not go alone, and to make sure that any vigilante she was speaking to was unarmed before she started talking to him. But she emphasized that they had let her start the investigation despite the risks.

“I am part of a long tradition of female journalists in the Philippines. They’ve survived torture. They’ve survived dictators. They’ve survived a threat of shutdown” said Evangelista, who went on to say that she is proud to be among her female colleagues.

Patricia Evangelista receiving the Global Shining Light Award for the story "Murder in Manila," an investigation into President Duterte's drug war

Minna Knus-Galàn from the Finnish Broadcasting Company shares her experiences of the challenges facing women journalists and her strategies for coping with these challenges. While she said that knowing how to cope with criticism is important for both men and women in the industry, she noted that she thinks women journalists often face more scrutiny, especially when they are covering “hard” topics such as financial crimes.

Knus-Galàn said that she once published a story on corruption in the Finnish tax administration, and a male journalist wrote a newspaper column criticizing the story, which she said is not an issue, since everyone has the right to criticism, but he had called her an “inexperienced girl reporter,” when she has 15 years of experience as a journalist. She also said that women journalists get a different kind of criticism from their male colleagues. The criticisms are often “more personal and sexist.” One of Knus-Galàn’s younger colleagues told her that after she published a story, she noticed that online commenters were discussing the size of her breasts. She then suggested that if such a thing happens, one should let one’s team know. She also said that an editor or producer should be able to act as a “buffer” for the journalists and to help absorb the shock when such comments are thrown at them.

Knus-Galàn’s recommendation is to document everything from one’s research to e-mails, and to keep them in order, so that they may be referenced if a claim is made that there is a factual error. She also stressed the importance of peer support in a news agency.

Marcela Turati, founder of Quinto Elemento Lab, Mexico, shared her experience of reporting as a woman in Mexico, where she often covers violent crimes, and how she processes and talks about what she is experiencing. Turati and her colleagues spent two years documenting mass graves in Mexico. She started noticing that her colleagues in the all-women team were showing signs of trauma, and realized the need to implement measures to support colleagues emotionally and to open up channels of communication about what each member of the team was experiencing, stressing the importance of finding ways to cope with reporting violence.

She also said that during the mass graves documentation project, one of her colleagues became pregnant, and in this case, it is important to set an “emotional deadline” so the colleague is able to distant herself from the atrocities they are documenting in the last month of her pregnancy.

Miranda Patrucic is an investigative journalist for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and two-time winner of the Global Shining Light Award. Patrucic has reported in Central Asia and Azerbaijan, and said that during the times she was being recognized with global journalism awards, she reached a point where she was so overworked that she was no longer productive. She began experiencing memory loss, panic attacks, inability to focus, brain fog, and fatigue, all of which are symptoms of burnout.

Patrucic said that, while the process took about a year, she was very lucky to have recovered and stressed that it is important to know one’s limits, to remember that “you are only human,” and to take care of yourself.

Juliane Löffler from BuzzFeed News also emphasized the importance of stopping and pausing to think about what one needs to be able to keep working. She said that there is a need to counter the stereotypical idea of what an investigative reporter is, such as being someone who is constantly working and who works alone, and that it is important to have mental health support, saying that her team has decided that they will have a “psychological supervisor” for the team that they can consult on a regular basis. She also said that it is important to be one’s own advocate and communicate to the organizations’ management that mental health resources are needed for a good performance.

On the topic of mental health and trauma, Japanese journalist and filmmaker Shiori Ito, sharing her experience of investigating sexual violence, said that “every story we do is sometimes traumatic.” Ito went public in 2017 with allegations that she had been sexually assaulted by Noriyuki Yamaguchi, the former Washington bureau chief for the TBS network with close ties to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in 2015. Her experience of the Japanese legal system after she reported that she was assaulted led to her investigation of sexual harassment in the Japanese media industry. She said that sometimes the investigation can be quite personal for the journalist, but also that the ability to investigate is a journalist’s power.

Shiori Ito holding a "victory" banner in front of the Tokyo district court when she won her lawsuit against Noriyuki Yamaguchi

Ito said that, when she first went to the police in 2015 and was told that the police would not take her case, she started to learn how the Japanese legal system fails victims of sexual violence. Since nothing came out of reporting the assault, she decided to go public. As a result, she received backlash against her and her family. She was also attacked by “right-wing” media, and said that she still faces threats and attacks. Ito was also told that by going public, she can no longer work in Japan, so she found work with a London-based media organization, which she said helped her in speaking out. She is now based in London, has worked in different locations around the world, and her latest project is an investigation into female genital mutilation in Syria.

In 2017, Ito published a book based on the documents she collected during the investigation process for her own assault case. Black Box has now been published in 64 languages, and Ito has been called “the symbol of Japan’s #MeToo movement” by several media outlets.

In December 2019, Ito won her civil case against Yamaguchi. The Tokyo District Court ordered Yamaguchi to pay Ito 3.3m yen, or around 911,590 baht, in damages, and dropped his counter suit against her.

Oriana Zill, producer for CBS News 60 Minutes, shared her experience of covering the story about children being separated from their families at the border by the US Homeland Security, a story she said she could not have covered without being a mother, and he storm of online attacks from government officials, which included being accused of spreading fake news and misinformation.

“Even when the government is attacking you, as women, we should be covering these hard issues that as women I think we have a particular talent to cover it [sic] well and spend the time we need with the victims and the families.”

Zill also pointed out that there is an imbalance across all media in terms of the gender of the interview subject, and said that, as a way of contributing to the ways news is being covered, she has made an effort to try to feature women in all of her stories.

“There are a lot of topics women would lean towards and cover, because we are women. I can do four stories a year and I tried to think about selecting the story topics that I’m going to do that will pertain to women and feature women prominently on television and should talk about issues that are really important to women,” Zill said.

Asha Mwilu, investigative journalist and Special Projects Editor for Citizen TV, Nairobi, Kenya, warned against unsafe reporting. Mwilu works in Kenya and shared her experience of reporting in areas under threat and in places that were later attacked. In 2012, Mwilu was running an investigation into criminal gangs in Kenya who are being used by local politicians to carry out ethnic violence before the election. Mwilu was speaking to gang members to find out what they were planning. She said that the day after the story aired, some of the gang members she interviewed came to her office during the night, and that these people were later found to have been armed.

She said that, in most cases, she was underfunded and did not have adequate security measures while working in risky situations. She also stressed the importance of considering the reporter’s well-being and safety before covering a story, with one of the measures being working as a team instead of alone, and that it is important to build a community not only of journalists but also civil society organizations.

Alejandra Xanic Vb, co-founder of Quinto Elemento Lab, shared her strategies for finding a work-life balance, noting that those who are not parents often have a harder time finding balance. She stressed the importance of thoughtfulness, of thinking about a plan for the project and what is needed for the way ahead, and of paying attention to one’s instincts. In recognizing the highs and lows of the investigative process, Vb said that it is also important to praise each other’s work and to celebrate the small successes.

The Panel was moderated by Sheila Coronel, Dean of Academic Affairs of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

More stories from the 2019 Global Investigative Journalism Conference

A 2011 report by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) which surveyed more than 500 media companies in nearly 60 countries, found that men occupy the “vast majority” of management and news-gathering positions in most countries, with 73% of top management positions being occupied by men and only 27% by women. Meanwhile, around 64% of reporters in the companies surveyed are men and only 36% are women.

The study stated that it has found “glass ceilings for women in 20 of 59 nations studied” with these barriers being found in the “middle and senior management levels.”

In Asia and Oceania, the study surveyed media companies in Australia, Bangladesh, China, Fiji, India, Japan, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, and South Korea. It found that men in the media outnumber women four to one across the region, and that “the general pattern is one of exclusion,” with the exception of China, Fiji, and New Zealand, where “women are either at parity with men or even exceed the numbers of men, in some occupational levels associated with reporting and decision-making”.

The Global Investigative Journalism Network provides resources for women journalists, which can be found on its website, including ways of finding networks and opportunities of support for women journalists, as well as resources for handling issues such as online harassment, workplace discrimination, and gender-based violence.

The 2019 Global Investigative Journalism Network has also noted and been praised for the gender balance among its speakers and participants, with 48% of the speakers being women and 49% being men, while 50% of the participants are women and 45% are men.

Gabriela Manuli, Deputy Director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, said that “it is not a challenge” to find women panellists, and that the organizers have done their very best to have gender-balanced panels.

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26 Oct 2020
26 Oct 2020