How a Network of Females in the Journalism Community Helps Me Do My Job Better

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my time in the journalism community and if I have what it takes to hang on. It’s a tough time to be a journalist for all the obvious reasons — ad sales declining, cutbacks in newsrooms, and of course our president’s never-ending hatred of everything we do. But I realize it’s also an important time to be a journalist. Now, more than ever, finding the truth matters. I mean, it really matters. The work we produce, what we uncover, will impact the way this country moves forward. The problem, though, at least for me, is finding a way to wade through all the mud, all the gook that is the bad pay and unsustainable lifestyle, while still doing important work.

I’ve come to a conclusion: I can do this if I have people to lean on. Sure, I have family and friends that are always going to be there for me. But that’s not the kind of support I am talking about. I am talking about having support from other people in this industry who will go to bat for you. I’ve found that group of people — all of them young women like myself — and with their advice and guidance, I can produce my very best journalism. And it’s a mutual support, of course. We all promote each other’s work on social media. We talk about things like navigating delicate sourcing relationships and dealing with unbearable bosses. Most importantly, though, we can talk about things that no one else likes to talk about in the newsroom. We talk about things like unfair freelance contracts and how to negotiate them, misogyny in the workplace, and making sure our voices are heard in editor meetings.

I think one of the most important things for women in this industry to be talking about, especially women in my generation, is the fact that many of us are continuously overlooked for staff positions. I can’t tell you how many times outlets have passed by my application and hired a man either my age or slightly older who has less experience and less education. What this has taught me: Middle East conflict reporting is a man’s game. I think any woman out there working in this field will tell you that they have to work harder and longer than their male colleagues in order to prove themselves to their bosses. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Women have done this since the age of time in America. But it seems like we are in a time in history, especially in the journalism industry, where women, no matter how well we do are work, can’t get ahead. We continuously find ourselves running up against a brick wall and falling back sometimes to jobs we held when we were just out of school. (I’ve thought about applying to unpaid internships and I am 28).

To all my ladies in the industry out there, know this: There will always, always be men that are threatened by what you are doing. Sometimes that manifests itself in really destructive ways like them trolling you on social media. Other times they will call you out on live TV or treat you inappropriately on the ground in far flung places like Iraq or Afghanistan. It is always better to stand up for yourself and fight back, no matter what other people say. In the end, your reputation and your work is in your own hands. You have to claim your own future. Speaking up and back at those who treat you poorly or speak to you in either sexist or degrading ways is important. Even if those people are your superiors.

The other thing my comrades and I talk about is freelance contracts and negotiating with intimidating individuals. What we’ve come to vocalize on our many many conversations is that both women and men to stand up to their superiors and ask for what they deserve. This includes asking for proper protection and payment. I know not only freelancers but also staffers that have to continuously beg their publications for funds for simple things like drivers and fixers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember one time when I was working in Turkey, I had an editor tell me that I “didn’t deserve the perks that people at the New York Times get” because I hadn’t yet proved myself. I had asked this editor for funds to pay for things like fixers and translators while I was covering the battle against ISIS in Syria from Turkey. The email I received my editor was long and filled with reasons why I didn’t deserve protection. I’ve kept this email and periodically look back at it for inspiration.

I’ve gotten better at negotiating freelance contracts. But honestly, it gets exhausting. I’m tired. I’m tired of continuously having to ask editors to pay me the standard day rate. I’m tired of having to tell my editors that I won’t go into the line of fire unless they give me proper protection. Why do we always have to ask for things that should be considered standard? I’ve started saying “no” to publications that offer laughable payment terms. I’ve started telling editors that their demands are unrealistic. I’ve come to understand that keeping peace of mind by saying “no”, even if that means I don’t make as much money that month, is worth it.

Lastly, I talked with my female support “sisters” as I like to call them, about the need for more people in the journalism industry to talk about mental health, especially those that reporting in conflict zones. I’ve dealt with a lot of health issues in my times reporting in the Middle East, some of which I have written about on Narratively. I’ve also been diagnosed with PTSD and had to deal with that. I think these are issues that a lot of people don’t feel comfortable talking about. There needs to be more discussion about the issues, especially mental health struggles, that both men and women face working in this field. I overcame these issues by simply relying on my family and friends, and a really good psychologist!  

I don’t claim to have everything figured out in this at times crazed journalism industry. I still struggle day to day in thinking about whether all the bad gooky stuff I mentioned above is worth it. On bad days I’ll reach out on our group’s WhatsApp thread and vent. And other days I think back to the beginning of my career as a campus editor at The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was a full-time job. And it is where I learned how to be a reporter. It was fun. We put out a paper every day. We stayed some nights until 11 p.m., drinking skunked beer and copy editing with red colored pencils.  We did serious reporting, too. We broke stories the state papers didn’t even have on their radar. I need to remember that fun. I need to remember that despite all the BS that we have to deal with, our stories can end presidencies. That is a power, and privilege, that should be protected and nurtured.

Erin Banco is a Middle East reporter whose first book is Pipe Dreams: The Squandering of Iraq’s Oil Wealth, which will be published by Columbia Global Reports in November 2017. Banco has been covering armed conflict and human rights violations in the Middle East for six years. She covered the revolts in the region and the war in Syria. After graduating from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, she was a fellow at The New York Times and then the Middle East correspondent for International Business Times, breaking stories on the rise of the Islamic State group and on the Free Syrian Army arms program. Banco also traveled to Gaza to cover the war with Israel in the summer of 2014. More recently, Banco began covering the Islamic State group’s economy by tracking illicit oil sales in Turkey and Iraq. You can follow Banco for more of her work on her website and on Twitter at @ErinBanco.

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