When half the story isn’t told

Why it matters that women journalists report on conflict and fragile states.

By: /
December 16, 2020
Democratic Republic Of Congo: Raped Women In Luvungi
Mariana Grepinet reporting in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010. Alvaro Canovas/Paris Match via Getty Images

It didn’t take me long to discover the kinds of barriers women face in journalism or understand their real-world impact on women’s advancement.

I was working at a business magazine. A junior hire, I was the only woman in management in a newsroom mostly made up of older men. I recall an absurd debate when I queried why we didn’t feature women on the cover, only to be told that the one time the magazine had done so, they’d produced the worst-selling edition in its history.

Ordinarily, a journalist offering up a sample size of one as evidence of a systemic problem would be mocked. In this case, it had been the deciding argument keeping accomplished women off the cover for years.

That was in 2005. Since then, North Americans have enjoyed major breakthroughs in women’s rights, both in newsrooms and in society. #MeToo helped bring down powerful predators from Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to Fox’s Roger Ailes, while firmly establishing the principle that a woman journalist should not have to sleep with her boss or her sources in order to do her work. A woman is CEO of the CBC. Women anchor the national newscasts and edit newspapers. On the surface, we’ve come a long way.

The statistics, unfortunately, indicate otherwise. A 2017 report by the Women’s Media Center, an American NGO, found that the number of women working in U.S. newspapers had advanced a mere 1.3 per cent since 1999. In Canada, a 2016 study by researcher Marika Morris for the NGO Informed Opinions found that men are quoted in media over women at a rate of almost three-to-one.

Such concerns pale in comparison with the plight of women journalists in conflict zones around the world. This is well documented in Half the Story is Never Enough, a collection of essays published by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, World Press Freedom Canada and Journalists for Human Rights, the journalism training organization I run.

“Women journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo sleep overnight in the newsroom after a late deadline to avoid being raped on the way home.”

In her essay, Congolese journalist Sandra Bashengezi describes a level of violence and harassment encountered by women journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo that would be hard for their western counterparts to understand. For instance, women journalists in DR Congo have told CTV National News senior editor and chief anchor Lisa LaFlamme, who trained journalists in DR Congo for JHR, that they would sleep overnight in the newsroom after a late deadline to avoid being raped on the way home.

Why should global policymakers care that women journalists in politically fragile environments confront such obstacles in the course of their work? Studies have shown that societies gripped by conflict benefit from women’s leadership and that when women speak up and take their place at the negotiation table, attention tends to shift from political stalemates toward peace. One study found that women’s participation in a peace process makes it 35 per cent more likely that a peace deal will last more than 15 years.

The value of women’s voices and leadership in peacemaking makes it all the more important to normalize the practice of women being quoted as leaders and experts in public. Such a change is unlikely to happen, however, until women are in decision-making positions in newsrooms whose broadcasts and editorials still shape so much of the public narrative.

Writing in the collection about her home country of Syria, journalist Nisreen Anabli reports getting overlooked for promotions as less-qualified men advance to top jobs. She describes how women journalists are not allowed to  interview rigidly conservative Syrian men. And it’s accepted that women journalists endure sexual harassment by older male peers as a “price” they pay for being so visible in society.

Filipina journalist and global press freedom icon Maria Ressa has deftly sketched out the link between the persecution of journalists, the decline of the media business model, social media platforms that abandon their responsibility to ensure facts govern and inform the public sphere and the death of democracy.

“You say a lie a million times, it becomes a fact,” she said in a September webinar. “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these, democracy as we know it is dead.”

Ressa’s high-profile fight for press freedom has resulted in a backlash against her at home. After the populist government of Rodrigo Duterte was elected, Ressa and her team went to work documenting the extrajudicial killings his government unleashed. This drew the ire of misogynist trolls and a misogynist president alike.

Duterte wielded his power to appoint judges to silence his critics, including Ressa. Starting in 2017, she began receiving a slew of charges for “cyber-libel.” In June 2020, a Filipino court found her guilty of this crime. The complaint was filed seven years after the offending piece was published. Ressa faces large fines and the possibility of jail time.

“What’s keeping me going?” Ressa asks over the phone from Manila. “The international human rights treaties and covenants that the Philippines is signatory to … Those treaties and covenants are my last legal hope.”

DR Congo’s Bashengezi and Syria’s Anabli also cite their governments’ professed commitment to gender equality and equity principles in international treaties as an opportunity for the international community to pressure their governments on these issues.

DR Congo, for instance, has ratified international agreements for the advancement of women, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. International governments and donor agencies like Global Affairs Canada can, and do, use these commitments as leverage to promote gender equality. For example, under Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, funded projects must prioritize women and girls’ rights and advancement.

Anabli emphasizes the value of this approach in her paper. And, like Bashengezi, she applauds gender-sensitive media training initiatives, such as the kind JHR runs. But she warns that for some media partners these can lead to tokenism. A media partner will “promote” a woman into a leadership role to satisfy the expectations of international donors, only to disempower her when the funder has left the room.

For those in the international community who want to help women journalists in countries where the rule of law is fundamentally compromised, Maria Ressa supports the use of so-called Magnitsky sanctions against those persecuting her and other journalists. (Unlike economic sanctions against a country, which can penalize the broader population, Magnitsky sanctions target individuals who have committed human rights abuses or acts of corruption.)

As Canadian journalist and gender rights advocate Sally Armstrong puts it, if you don’t have women covering the news, you’re only getting half the story. The question of who voices and reports the news, and who gets quoted as leaders and experts in the news, matters. It can contribute to building greater expectations about women’s potential, and it can lay the groundwork for women to lead in peace-building processes. It can also keep 50 per cent of humanity off the front page, at the back of the room and broadly subservient to the other gender. In this light, normalizing female leadership by getting women into the anchor’s chair, into the ownership suite and onto the editorial board is urgently needed.