Tag Archives: Media

Guts is not the problem, but training is the solution


I have guts. A lot of guts. Guts is not the issue.

Recently Poynter.org’s Mallory Jean Tenore wrote that Minnesota Public Radio’s Eric Ringham claimed women and all others who felt left out of the public discourse in opinion pages of mainstream media needed to “summon up some guts to dive in.”

Women journalists have more guts than most anybody I know. For the Journalism & Women Symposium annual camp held in Texas last year, the t-shirt read, “Don’t Mess With a Woman Journalist.” We are not generally a timid bunch.

Many, many men and women journalists have been protesting for years about the inequity of gender –and color– refelcted in bylines and guest shots on opinion pages, broadcasts  and Internet sites for years. For YEARS. I did a chapter on it in my 2008 book, Everyman News: “Diversity of Thought Changes Content.”

Every once in a while, a gender-balanced or predominatly female byline count of a opinion or home page will feel fresh and victorious. And then it’s back to the same old same old.

Which is why founder and director of The Op-Ed Project Katie Orenstein is bringing the show to Chicago June 11 for a day-long core seminar with journalist, author and broadcaster Katherine Lanpher as workshop leader.

In bringing the Op/Ed Project to Chicago, partnering with Women of the World and Northwestern University’s Medill School, where I am an assistant journalsim professor, the goal is for thought leaders in the area to feel compelled to show up and spend a day learning how to be seen and heard. Diversify the conversation.

Because it isn’t about guts and it isn’t about surveys, updates and byline counts. It’s about having your voice listened to amid the noise. It’s about making a difference. Being the change. And not just screaming at the wind.

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Surgeon General Loves Reporters

Dr. Regina Benjamin, the 18th U.S. Surgeon General, has gone from being bothered by reporters to embracing the chance to be interviewed.

Speaking to an audience of about 100 in a half-filled auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago earlier this week, the first female African-American doctor whose job is to care for 300 million Americans admitted she used to hate when journalists would call.

“A reporter would call and say, ‘I want to interview you,’ and I was annoyed because I wanted to see patients,” said the former small-town family practice phyisician in Louisiana in her MacArthur Fellows Science Lecture.

But after one local article sparked a pile of letters from third graders who said they wanted to grow up and be like her, she changed her mind.

“Those articles were not about me,” Benjamin said, nodding to her sorority sisters in the audience from Delta Sigma Theta. “They were about them. I have been answering reporters ever since. You never know who is watching you. And with that comes responsibility.”

Sure, the former MacArthur Fellow spoke about major health issues facing Americans– obesity, poverty, sexually transmitted diseases, breastfeeding, substance abuse, violence and the overall healthcare system–  but her focus on personal responsibility for influencing the wider culture was what stuck. 

“I want to change the way we think about health,” Benjamin said to nods and applause. “We have to move from a system focusing on sick care to a system focused on prevention and wellness.”

Formerly criticized as someone who was not a lean example of perfect health, Benjamin said she considered walking as “taking medication,” and said her own walk in the Grand Canyon proved any and every American can become active.

Admitting “you can’t legislate behavior,” Benjamin was as patient answering audience questions ranging from the absurdly personal  to the contextually thoughtful, as she said she is from reporters.

Speaking about her own grandmother’s move to start an all-black church in Lousiana decades ago, Benjamin advocated for “servant leadership,” and her own model of “leadership from behind.” She explained that this philosophy centers on the notion that “you don’t forget to reach behind and pull someone else up. You also push them out in front of you and let them know you have their back. They will know you will not let them fall. ” 

It was an uplifting prescription for success and one I wish more from every profession would adopt.

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On committing journalism on purpose

In the last week I have been duly inspired by two standout women journalists. As I speak before a lecture hall to freshmen journalism students at Northwestern University’s Medill School every week, I am brought back to the intention that inspired many of us to pursue journalism reverently and humbly. It starts with the intention to change a system, portray a life, change a mind, foster a smile or an action. I want to remind the young men– and mostly women– that journalism is a noble profession.

The shame of plagiarists, back-talking CNN anchors and sloppy pundits aside, there are many thousands who take this profession seriously and view our jobs more as a calling than a call to a paycheck. It is the storytelling that matters to us.

Connie Schultz , a columnist at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, reminded me why I became a journalist in 1979 in her essay published on Poynter last week.     

It is an honor to tell the stories of regular people leading heroic lives of struggle and hard work. While it is sometimes wearying to chip away at the daily injustices of American life, it is ultimately rewarding work, if for no other reason than it fuels the person I want to be when I wake up in the morning. I don’t want to give up the fight. I want to be the woman who still jumps out of bed ready to take another swing at life.

    Another journalist I emulate is Laurie Hertzel, whose new book, “News To Me” is just out from University of Minnsota Press. In her book she writes about her own career as a small town reporter able to tell stories exceptionally well.  

For my last book, Everyman News, I interviewed Laurie, then working on narrative projects for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004. Now the books editor, Laurie said, “When you attach news stories to human beings, then it becomes more real.”

It’s ethics week this quarter in my Reporting & Writing Class and I have a robust lecture planned with two days of vigorous reporting and writing assignments designed to spark debate and thoughtfulness on the practice of being an ethical journalist. I sometimes cringe that I only spend a week on ethics. Hopefully this is the beginning of a dialogue that lasts each student’s four-year career here.

But it’s an opportunity to affect young journalists and to point out examples of those who continue to tell stories well because the compulsion is to inspire change that will affect lives. And to do it as well as humanly possible. Strive for excellence. And if real change is not possible through the journalism committed, then real stories will at least give a reader or viewer pause.

Schultz said it best:

“This is why I got into journalism. This is why I stay.”   

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Barbie Is No Journalist

Times like these I am relieved I have sons.

Barbie, specifically the I Can Be.. Barbie, has a new gig. News anchor. Dressed like Paris Hilton on her way to jail, this blonde beauty has it all wrong. Described as “wearing a posh pink suit with black accents and carrying a B news folder, camera and microphone, this savvy journalist reports up-to-the-minute news in signature Barbie style. The inspiring set also comes with a special code that unlocks career-themed content online, for even more digital play!”

Of course, the copy continues, this fashion doll has “a flair for journalism– and power pink!”

Dressed this way, Barbie would no more be the first one with the scoop than Elizabeth Hasselbeck would be the first one picked to interview a visiting dignitary over Barbara Walters.

But I guess a little girl can dream.  

This is where I get sick.

OK, so I grew up wanting to be Brenda Starr or Lois Lane. While everyone I knew wanted to be a ballerina or a fireman, I wanted to ask questions. And write stories like Brenda or Lois. But those idols looked like Golda Meir compared to the tart news anchor coming out in time for the holidays for just $12.99.

Never mind I have taught more than 1,000 woman in 14 years to be journalists at the Medill School of Journalism  and have emphasized and tried to role model for them what it means to be professional. I have had the dressing for an interview chat with students, most all of whom understand what not to wear to ask questions of strangers and cover a news conference. Occasionally, I have had the “have your shirt meet your pants” conversation for those students who like to bare a midriff in class. Never have I ever suggested they turn out for a story in a sparkly camisole, skin tight skirt, high heels and a jacket.

I have never told anyone or been advised that pink is a power color. What I tell students is you want to be remembered for your journalism, nothing else.

I guess as a journalist and journalism professor I can take solace in the notion that this News Anchor Barbie was the “first Barbie profession chosen by a global vote.” When you scroll through the other options– computer engineer, rock star, pizza chef (pizza chef?), dentist, kid doctor (can’t you call it a pediatrician?), race car driver (because there are so many of those), newborn baby doctor (again, what’s up with the pediatrician?), ballroom dancer (tell Bristol Palin it’s a real career), bride or babysitter– I guess News Anchor Barbie is a noble choice.    

My sons are now 21, 19 and 16 and heading toward real careers. Weldon will graduate in May from college with a double major and is headed to graduate school in Spain in translation. Brendan is majoring in business. Colin may go into sales. He’s still in high school.

When my youngest, Colin, was about 5, he said he wanted to be a jet ski driver. He insisted it was a career, I gather after the visit to the Wisconsin Dells. He assured me people would pay money to witness him  drive a jet ski in front of them back and forth, back and forth.  He knew to wear a wet suit. At least he would be dressed properly.

I am all for giving young girls a goal. I wanted to be a journalist from way back when. Probably since about 7 or 8 years old. I also wanted to wear pretty clothes and I dressed my Barbies, Midge, Francie and Skipper in all the teeny tiny tight dresses and plastic high heels my mother would buy. But I knew better than to think those two worlds could collide. I mean, seriously, Barbie totally dressed for Ken.  

Just as I know better than to stand in front of my journalism students dressed like Nicole Richie as ridiculed on gofugyourself, I know to interview someone dressed like a real journalist, not a Barbie doll.

Maybe next year Mattel will come out with Barbie I Can Be… Something Sensible.

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Everyman is Everywhere

In town visiting three students on Journalism Residency, I was driving past the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art yesterday. The banner flapping from the lightpost read: “SFMOMA, Your own narrative fills in the blanks.”

In my inbox, an email from Vogue (I buy it for the articles), urged me to “share my own Vogue story.” The text read: “Each month we tell you what inspires us, what moves us, and what takes our breath away. But now we want to hear from you. Share your Vogue story. Tell us how the magazine has been apart (sic) of your life.”

You really want my story?

My answer is that I see it in my mailbox every month,  take it out, flip through the pages and sometimes laugh at the gaunt 20 year-olds teetering in impossible heels with ratted wild wicked witch hair. Sometimes I take the fragrance inserts and rub them on my wrists. I read the profiles. Sometimes I see a pair of shoes that make me swoon.

But they are right, it is “apart” from my life. Not an integral part of my life. It is a magazine. And no matter how much I loved the movie, “Sepetember Issue,” I believe deep in my soul that Anna Wintour cares not a wink about my story.  The disingenuous attempt at inclusion feels false. No one wants Vogue to be about everywoman. For that I can look in the mirror.    

Still, it seems so many outlets want my story. Your story. Your narrative. Our narrative.

Each morning my Google Alerts for “everyman” include up to 20 entries of mentions from the trend toward “everyman” Oscars this year to pity for the downfall of Tiger Woods as Everyman. I don’t think so.

The overuse of the word and the notion of “we’re all in this together” supports my notion that we are immersed in a culture where the avergae citizen  is more appealing and newsworthy than an elite celebrity.

Sometimes the moniker is not deserved or sincerely applicable. Take Scott Brown, Republican’s No. 41. He is no Everyman for me, even though that has become his subtitled reference. Show me an everyman who poses for Cosmopolitan and wins a Senate seat. John Edwards was not an everyman either. He was a cheating slug.

Is he really an Everyman?

Pizza Hut and Comcast have everyman advertising campaigns, the late Walter Cronkite had everyman appeal, Barack Obama was an everyman and now not so much. Books, magazines, museums, ads, movies, pols, everyone and everything want to appeal to everyman.

Some of it I don’t buy. Some of it is just slapping a popular title on anything and everything.  Everyone is not an everyman.

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