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Experiences of The Modern Female Journalist and The History of Women in Journalism

By Lindsay Turpin

I recently had the opportunity to interview Denise Poon, who is currently a producer at FOX and has produced for other networks including ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, PBS, Al Jazeera America and Discovery.

An experienced producer in broadcast news for over 25 years, Denise Poon has seen the media change drastically throughout her career. She understands the intensified pressures on investigative reporters, the shielded discrimination, and the journalistic values that are being sacrificed in the age of social media. Her work in production allows her to see media from the lenses of research, writing, filming, interviewing, casting, wardrobe, and reporting.

In addition to her broad oversight of the news gathering process, Denise has worked in the genres of hard-hitting news, entertainment, science, crime, and travel. Through this storied career she has developed a fluency in media operations, but has also experienced the transformation of the field and the role of women and Asian Americans in it.

“As a female and a person of color, when I started in the business, there were very few role models and mentors in front of and behind the camera,” Denise said.

In the first part of her media career in the late 90’s, Denise was often told she looked like Connie Chung, who was the first Asian and second woman to become a news anchor on a major network news channel. In fact, Denise doesn’t believe she looks like Connie Chung at all, but instead thought it was a strange way for people to subtly acknowledge she was an Asian American woman and still a minority in the field.

“What they were trying to convey, but they couldn't, is you're still a rarity, an Asian in what was previously known as a non-traditional Asian profession,” she said.

Denise joined the Asian American Journalists Association early in her career soon after the organization was started, and has been influential in building the network through fundraising and mentoring others. She has also been able to grow alongside other trailblazers in AAJA who are encouraging each other and making positive change in the media.

“I'm not the first but I'm among a group of sort of emerging journalists, who right now are the people you see on the air, around the country, or behind the headlines,” Denise said.

Within her investigative work, Denise said she has been pressured by companies to drop stories that exposed their wrongdoings, and believes it has gotten worse with the increase of commercial interests in the gathering of news and the media sphere. However, she and her peers have been insistent on upholding the values of factual reporting and investigation. Denise even broke a story about child abuse that later allowed for the identification of the father as heavily involved in child porn trafficking. This persistence in journalistic work as a public service and meticulous uncovering of truth reflects the values of many of her predecessors.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we will dive into some of the key path breakers for women in the journalism profession, though these anecdotes just barely brush the network of inspiring figures. One of the biggest takeaways from these women is that an unwavering commitment to tough questions and informing the public has brought to light stories that may never have been told otherwise.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells was a pioneer not just as a woman in journalism, but also for the field in general as she established investigative reporting methods that are the basis of the work to this day. Wells began writing in local newspapers after one of her friends was lynched by a white mob. She was forced to leave Memphis after her coverage of this racist violence, so she settled in Chicago. Throughout the rest of her life, Wells established a career as an activist and writer, spreading awareness of lynching internationally and within the women’s suffrage movement. Her investigative journalism methods of detailed research and in-person interviews served her strong written arguments and inspired many of her predecessors to approach investigations the same way. Wells was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, which combined civil rights and women’s suffrage movements, and was present at the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize almost ninety years after her death, but her legacy is incalculable.

Alice Allison Dunnigan

Alice Allison Dunnigan was the first Black woman to be a White House correspondent, and to be a member of the Senate and House press galleries. Dunnigan was an avid writer from an early age - when she was just thirteen years old, she would write one-sentence news pieces for her local newspaper, called the Owensboro Enterprise. After leaving a marriage that didn’t suit her, Dunnigan taught classes while receiving a degree in journalism at Tennessee A&I University. During this period, she created a series of fact sheets in order to educate her students on Black history in the Kentucky region, which they were previously oblivious to. Dunnigan later worked as a freelance writer for the American Negro Press, then was hired at the Chicago Defender. Through her roles at ANP and The Defender, Dunnigan acquired a Capitol press pass that gave her access to Congressional events that women and African Americans were rarely allowed to attend. Her legacy is most tied to her forward questioning of Harry S. Truman about his plans for the civil rights movement and improving lives for Black Americans. Later, she worked on Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign and in his administration in the Department of Labor and the President’s Commission on Youth Opportunity. Dunnigan’s persistence as a reporter to go where no one like her had gone and ask forward questions of politicians is admirable and undoubtedly paved the way for many women reporters.

Discrimination At Newsweek and Other Publications in the 1960s and 70s

The 1960s were a turbulent time for women in journalism. Near the beginning of the decade, women could be hired to work in the mail room or as secretaries, or in the best case scenario they could write, but only in the “women’s news” department which was treated as inferior.

Some publications didn’t even allow women to become writers. Newsweek, for example, would only let their female hires be researchers, secretaries, or “mail girls”. Men would easily secure reporter and writer positions after applying with the same background as women. This unlawful discrimination came to a head in 1970 when 46 women filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that Newsweek was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the early 70s, there was an onslaught of lawsuits by women against Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Associated Press, Reuters, NBC, and several other publications. Race discrimination lawsuits were also filed at The Washington Post and Newsday.

Women weren’t allowed to join the National Press Club until 1971, which was the most popular association for journalists at the time. Unsurprisingly, women weren’t often hired to editor positions or high management roles. Only seven women were in the American Society of Newspaper Editors as of 1972, and they were all white. A lack of women hired to senior editor positions is an issue to consider to this day, as well as to executive positions in general: only 8.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

Barbara Walters

Though stark inequalities and discrimination against women were persisting throughout the 60s and 70s, Barbara Walters secured a spot as a producer and co-host at NBC’s TODAY Show in 1961, later becoming the first female anchor for network news while at ABC. Many say that Walters broke barriers for women who aspired to be broadcast journalists, when it was heavily male-dominated in the past. Not only was she a role model for many, she mentored those who wished to have careers similar to hers. Barbara Walters was another woman who asked tough questions, like her journalist predecessors such as Ida B. Wells, Ida Tarbell, and Alice Allison Dunnigan. Many of these women found success as reporters due to strong interview skills that extracted the truth of situations and boldly sought to tell the public about it.

Walters often faced rude treatment from her male co-anchors on air. On her first day at ABC, fellow reporter Harry Reasoner said to her, “Not to sound sexist, as in that, 'you brighten up the place,' or patronizing, as in, 'that wasn't a bad interview,' or sycophantic, as in, 'how in the world do you do it?” Walters later talked about her experience being cut off or shut down by male news anchors and restricted from discussion of serious news topics. Her strong reporting ability and dedication to crafting assertive questions gave her a reputation as “pushy” at first, but the public wouldn’t bat an eye at a man saying the same things. Nonetheless, despite the hardships and rude treatment Walters faced, she paved the way for many women who aspired to be the faces of broadcast news.

Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and #metoo

The potency of the #metoo movement in 2017 was in part due to the unyielding investigative reporting of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who pushed past the hush money and aggressive opposition to uncover disturbing truths about sexual assault patterns of Harvey Weinstein. Kantor and Twohey revealed more detail than ever before about Weinstein’s harmful power plays, gathering information over several months and sharing the experiences of dozens of women who were victims. This story, along with its disturbing facts of sexual harassment and assault, is public as a result of the integrity and unrelenting investigative skills of these reporters to tell the world the horrible truth buried by payoffs and settlements. To uphold the principles of reporting despite intense pushback, especially when telling a story about a man who was consistently harassing women and using his power to hide it, is the highest standard for a journalist and reflects the goals of the field to let truth hold people accountable. To do this as women voicing a story about sexism (that was often swept under the rug) caused a massive shift in accountability for workplace harassment and allowed for the creation of meaningful change.

Today’s Climate for Female Journalists

In spite of significant progress in the ability of women reporters to have a voice in the field, there remain some areas of underrepresentation. An international report on women in news media found that in most countries, men hold the majority of managerial positions, and only 36% of reporters are women on average. It has been clear that violence against female journalists throughout the world has been prevalent as they are often killed or imprisoned for speaking the truth in countries such as India, Afghanistan, Belarus, Myanmar, and China. According to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 67 journalists were killed in 2022, and 363 are currently imprisoned.

This article focused on the trajectory of American journalists, who have found great progress toward equality in recent years and uncovered earth shattering stories. However, other regions in the world do not necessarily have as much freedom of the press and space to conduct investigations. Therefore, we cannot stop pushing for the voices of women to be given sufficient space in the media, even as the environment looks much better than it did 150 years ago.


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