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Tomorrow’s Nellie Bly may be working on student media today


Two high school students, participants in the Dow Jones News Fund workshop at Kent State University in 2001, interview each other for the first story they had to write. Getting an early start as a journalist was a big plus in for many women journalists, including Katie Couric, who interned at the all-news Washington, D.C. radio station WAVA when she was in high school. (photo by Candace Bowen)

by Candace Bowen, MJE

If one of journalism’s jobs is to give voice to the voiceless, we should pay close attention to women in the field, especially in March, which is Women’s History Month.

This is a good time, according to the special website of the Library of Congress and other entities in Washington, D.C., to “commemorate and encourage the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women….” 

What female journalists come to mind? Possibly historical figures like Nellie Bly, really named Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who broke the record of Jules Verne’s fictional character and went around the world in 72 (not 80) days. But she also wrote about issues no one spoke oft at the time: bad conditions for women in factories and abuse from male family members. Such subjects meant the Pittsburgh Dispatch, where she worked at the time, lost advertisers, so her editor let her only write about fashion and social events.  

She left Pittsburgh and eventually became a reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. In the late 1880s, this meant she could cover more important – and sometimes sensational — issues. For instance, she went undercover in a mental institution, called the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, and spent 10 days there to report on the abuse and neglect. Copies of some of her stories and what else she covered are accessible through the Library of Congress link. 

Bly and others like her are the topic of “Sensational: the hidden history of America’s “girl stunt reporters,” by Kim Todd (2021.)

Stunts aren’t the approach of women journalists in many parts of the world today. “Media Defence,” the website of a legal support  initiative in England and Wales, tells the challenges of Clare Rewcastle Brown, founder and editor of SarawakReport, an outlet that reports on corruption and environmental issues in Malaysia. She was sentenced to two years in prison, though she has not been in the country so has not had to serve time yet. Upsetting a governor in Southeast Asia is a step up from upsetting the school principal but still similar. She made the country and its ruler look bad by telling the truth.

This group also tells about other journalists – they say they “have worked to protect freedom of expression in 117 countries across the world” and have “defended journalists, citizen journalists, bloggers and cartoonists in over 1,300 cases” since 2008.

No, these weren’t all women, but, according to Editor and Publisher, in February 2023, “53.4% of U.S. Journalists are women and 46.6% are men.”

It’s not always easy being a woman journalist. UNESCO reported at the World Press Freedom Conference in 2020 that 73% of women in the survey reported experiencing online violence in the course of their work and 25% had received threats of physical violence.

One of the first journalists killed in Ukraine was Oksana Baulina, who had been filming damage in Kyiv from an earlier attack, when the area was bombed again. She was a Russian journalist who had worked with Alexey Navalny’s  Anti-Corruption Foundation until Russian authorities made staying there too dangerous. She was on assignment for “The Insider” when she was killed, according to Aljazeera’s website.

From ABOUT at the end of site: “The Insider is a Russia-focused, independent media outlet. We’re fully committed to investigative journalism and to debunking fake news. We’re proud of our growing recognition, having received, among many others, The Council of Europe’s Innovation Award, The European Press Prize and the Free Media Award.”

There’s plenty about the history of women in journalism – and in headlines happening even today – to inspire and, yes, frighten those who want to pursue such a career. It takes a special kind of grit and determination, a love of country and a commitment to telling the world what it needs to know to stay informed and be contributing citizens. It’s not for everyone, but understanding what some have done and are doing might inspire some of today’s young female journalists to pursue such a career. At least it might make them stand their ground if they want to cover a controversial situation that could be improved. 

After all, do they really want to only cover fashion and social events?