Where are the investigative journalists challenging patriarchy?

Amid growing threats to our sexual and reproductive rights, and enduring inequality, discrimination and gender-based violence, we need fearless feminist investigative journalism now. Apply for 50.50's inaugural feminist investigative journalism fellowships.

Claire Provost author pic
Claire Provost Lara Whyte
19 January 2018

Women’s March 2017.

Women’s March 2017. Photo: Mark Dixon/Wikimedia. Creative Commons (CC by 2.0). Some rights reserved.

When a younger, less-experienced man receives a higher salary for the same job. When senior, male colleagues ask about your sex life. When the dominance of precarious, freelance work means no maternity leave and limited reproductive choice.

When everyone quoted, in yet another story, is a man. When all stock images of women seem to be of the same woman. When gender injustices and discrimination aren’t even on the agenda of possible story topics, let alone covered with the depth and commitment given to other issues.

We have spent most of our adult lives in journalism. This means first-hand experience with gender inequality – in workplaces, and in what is produced in these spaces.

We were both, separately, attracted to investigative journalism by its core promises: to challenge the powerful and shine a spotlight on injustices. Good investigative journalism reveals important, new information in the public interest.

Investigative journalism should look beyond the headlines at injustices that the powerful would rather stay unreported. It must listen to marginalised voices and takes their stories seriously. But, we discovered, it also has largely overlooked patriarchy.

Where are all of the investigations into threats against women’s human rights defenders? Where are the journalists holding governments to account for shuttered domestic violence shelters, or poverty and insecurity among single mothers in the gig economy?

Of course, there are reporters doing such work, too often on shoestring budgets and without the recognition they deserve. These include our colleagues Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi‏ and Clare Sambrook on openDemocracy’s Shine A Light section, reporting on corporate and state abuses of power in the UK.

Clare Sambrook and Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, editors of openDemocracy’s Shine A Light section.

Clare Sambrook and Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, editors of openDemocracy’s Shine A Light section.

There is Nina Lakhani, covering human rights in Central America, including the murder of Honduran activist Berta Caceres and whether US-trained special forces were involved. And Maeve McClenaghan, at the UK Bureau for Investigative Journalism, who recently covered huge public budget cuts and their impacts on survivors of domestic violence across England. In America, a long tradition of brave, women journalists includes Nellie Bly, who spent time inside an asylum in the 1880s to expose abuse, neglect and poor living conditions inside, and Ida B Wells, a black American reporter who investigated lynchings in the 1890s.

But, according to the Women’s Media Center, the majority of US newspaper staff, bylines, and an extraordinary 84% of the last century’s Pulitzer Prizes have gone to men. Women of colour and women from working-class backgrounds are even further underrepresented.

“The face of watchdog journalism is male,” wrote Sheila S. Coronel, director of Columbia’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, in 2013. She argued: “For too long, media power has been in the hands of men. Why shouldn’t women also share the power to shape public discourse, to frame the terms of policy debate, to be a watchdog for the public interest?”

Apply for 50.50's inaugural feminist investigative journalism fellowships.

We need more women investigative journalists exposing and challenging structural violence against women, holding governments accountable for gender-specific impacts of public policies, and tracking threats to our rights from conservative, fundamentalist, and populist movements.

This work must be better resourced, with more people doing it, to have impact. And original investigative journalism requires time, skill and money.

Unsurprisingly, investigations is an area under considerable pressure amid tight budgets and editors’ reluctance to allocate precious resources to time-consuming, difficult work. But some new platforms and projects have emerged, focusing on national security and civil liberties, the US criminal justice system, and threats to press freedom. So where is the feminist Intercept?

So where is the feminist Intercept?

Simultaneously, numerous media outlets and sections of publications explicitly focus on ‘women’s issues,’ often packed with fashion and relationship advice. Where are their investigative reporters? Their Freedom of Information requests?

In 2017, sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood behemoth Harvey Weinstein, first by revealed by journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in the New York Times, prompted a flood of follow-up pieces that has not yet receded.

But stories about women are not the same thing as women’s rights stories. In Italy, many Weinstein-related stories perpetuated the same kind of outrageous victim-blaming and slut-shaming that has dominated the country’s reporting on violence against women.

In many articles, internationally, widespread sexual abuse in other, less-elite workplaces, was only quickly mentioned, if at all, amid an obsessive focus on the rich and the famous.

There are fearless women journalists that we can must learn from. Too many make huge sacrifices to do their jobs. A 2014 international survey of female journalists found that nearly half had experienced sexual harassment. A fifth had been physically attacked at work.

Almost two-thirds said they had experienced some form of intimidation or abuse, including death threats. Many said that perpetrators were bosses, supervisors or co-workers. Such incidents are seldom officially reported up the chain, despite the harm they cause.

Last year, the mutilated body of Swedish journalist Kim Wall was found in the water near Copenhagen. Investigative reporter in Malta Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb. Numerous women journalists have been killed in Mexico in recent years, including Regina Martínez, and María Elizabeth Macías. Many more have been attacked or threatened.

“Detention, threats and killings are just some of the forms of violence women journalists from across the globe face because of the work they do, in a profession that is male dominated and steeped in cultural and patriarchal norms,” human rights advocate Katherine Ronderos has noted, while many survivors remain silent due to fear of losing future assignments.

Jeta Xharra.

Jeta Xharra. Photo: Lara Whyte.

Last year, we met Jeta Xharra – head of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network’s bureau in Prishtina. She told us how gender discrimination has marked her entire career. Sometimes, she found ways to use this to her advantage: being overlooked and underestimated by men helped her get through police checkpoints and extract detailed information from powerful mansplainers.

Xharra is now a high-profile public figure in Kosovo. She is also the host of a popular current affairs TV programme which she has recently used to challenge politicians, on live broadcasts, on gender inequality and property rights. She faults deeply-rooted misogyny with discouraging women in the Balkans from becoming journalists in the first place.

Of course, it is dangerous to suggest that one must have personal experience with a form of oppression in order to write about it as a journalist. But how do male-dominated newsrooms, in a male-dominated industry, in a patriarchal culture, even start investigating untold gender inequality stories?

How do male-dominated newsrooms, in a male-dominated industry, in a patriarchal culture, even start investigating untold gender inequality stories?

What questions do these reporters ask? Who do they listen to? Who are they writing for? When journalists follow the movements and agenda of (yes: male-dominated) political and corporate elites, what ends up in the notebook to follow-up, and what goes unconsidered and unreported?

There are some important initiatives to support women journalists including the International Women’s Media Fund, and a new project of the Center for Investigative Reporting: Glassbreaker Films to support women working on investigative and in-depth documentary films.

But we need many more such efforts to tackle the institutional and structural marginalisation of women and issues that impact us in the media.

Stories in 50.50's series tracking the backlash against sexual and reproductive rights.

Stories in 50.50's series tracking the backlash against sexual and reproductive rights.

In 2017, 50.50 began tracking the backlash against sexual and reproductive rights. We’ve reported from inside the World Congress of Families summit of anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ rights groups and followed the rise of the Spanish conservative organising platform CitizenGo.

Other pieces tracked how UK anti-abortion activists use American tactics to shock and shame women, how Romania became a battleground in the transatlantic backlash against LGBT rights, and how a controversial Christian conservative ‘legal army’ is expanding internationally.

We met some of the young women leading Ireland’s anti-abortion fight, heard how anti-abortion extremists have manipulated #BlackLivesMatter to vilify African-American women, and saw how Italian doctors’ widespread use of "conscientious objection" has limited women’s access to abortion services even decades after their decriminalisation.

This year, we will expand and deepen this project. We also want to support more women and trans writers to investigate and report confidently about issues that impact them – now. To help us do this, we have launched a call for applications for two young writers to join 50.50 in 2018 as our very first feminist investigative journalism fellows.

In April, 50.50 will also be in Perugia, Italy, for the 2018 International Journalism Festival where we are organising a panel on the need for feminist investigative journalism. Last year, festival speakers included the reporter Khadija Ismayilova, from Azerbaijan, who has investigated and exposed corruption in her country, and has faced threats and blackmail as a result.

Pro-choice protest in the US.

Pro-choice protest in the US. Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr. Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0) Some rights reserved.

Around the world, women’s rights are being undermined and directly challenged by harmful state policies and corporate strategies. Conservative and fundamentalist groups, of diverse faiths, are increasingly working in strategic, international alliances against sexual and reproductive rights.

With leaders like Donald Trump in high office, and threats against women’s rights activists and journalists around the world, we need fearless feminist media now more than ever. This is 50.50, the openDemocracy section covering gender, sexuality and social justice.

50.50 aims to expose and challenge threats to our rights, document stories of resistance against injustice and inequality, and encourage more women to pursue feminist investigative journalism.

Importantly, we won’t engage in lengthy debates over our rights. Women’s rights are human rights and they are not negotiable. We are trans-inclusive and commit to continuously diversifying the voices on 50.50, paying attention to class as well as race, nationality and other power dynamics.

50.50 is a unique space at a critical time for women’s rights and freedom of expression globally. We must be bolder and more impactful than ever.

Support feminist investigative journalism. Support 50.50, the openDemocracy.net section covering women’s rights, sexuality and social justice, worldwide.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData