Quill magazine cover with image of women jogging, shot from behind

Is this magazine cover sexist?

When I was first asked that question Saturday, I said, No, but it’s stupid.

The cover story in SPJ’s bimonthly magazine is about journalism training, and the cover photo is a lame stock image chosen by a lazy editor – who quit his job a few weeks ago and obviously didn’t give a damn.

Then I saw this…

…and I thought, Sure, it sucks, but “not appropriate”?

Then SPJ member Marie Baca wrote this, in which she said…

I have a feeling that some of you think I am blowing this out of proportion, but I also have a feeling that some of you know that I’m not. Maybe some of you have had some of the same experiences that I’ve had in the journalism industry. You know, the ones that aren’t something worth filing a sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuit over, but the ones that very quietly tell you that you maybe you don’t deserve the same respect or opportunities as your older, whiter, male-r colleagues.

…and I thought, Damn, but does SPJ really look that bad?

Over the weekend, my fellow SPJ board members emailed (too) casually about this. Without asking us, SPJ posted this reply…

…and I thought, That’s not the way to handle this – no ifs, ands, or buts.

This is what irks me most about SPJ. We run from the Big Questions. We don’t like to admit we’re wrong, which means we never learn.

I admit it right now: I was wrong, but I’m glad I was. I learned something this weekend. When was the last weekend you learned anything?

I learn best when I say yeah, but and the reply kicks my ass. I emailed Baca yesterday, copped to changing my mind, and asked her some questions. Her answers were enlightening and depressing.

Asked and answered

Marie C. BacaI’ve edited Baca’s comments because they were long – but not boring or rambling. 

Q. How would you rate SPJ’s handling of this? 

I would characterize SPJ’s handling of this issue as “horrendous.”

Any organization that represents an industry like journalism, one that has a long history of discrimination, has the duty to treat accusations of sexism with great seriousness. It was clear from the initial response I received from the SPJ Twitter account – a non-apology if I’ve ever seen one – that this was not going to happen.

Q. How could we do better next time? (Because I won’t be surprised if there’s a next time.)

Before SPJ said anything, on social media or otherwise, the following things should have happened:

• Interviews should have been conducted with the people involved with the cover photo decision as well as the two people who complained.

• The directors in charge of diversity as well as the ethics panel should have been asked to review the complaint and the comments from Quill staff against SPJ discrimination policies and issued a recommendation.

• The board should have discussed the issue in light of the aforementioned information and recommendations.

Then, and only then, should any sort of statement be offered on behalf of SPJ.

Q. Has anyone personally reached out to you yet?

I just got off the phone with president Lynn Walsh, and it is difficult to describe the enormity of my disappointment in our conversation.

Lynn seemed both irritated and defensive. She acknowledged the photo was irrelevant for a journalism publication, but said she did not find it sexist or inappropriate.

She insisted that SPJ had already issued an appropriate response via Twitter and said the organization did not plan to investigate the issue further or issue any statement on behalf of the organization.

Q. Some SPJers think this is no big deal. What would you tell them?

To those who say this is no big deal, I say this:

Why have I received hundreds of social media comments from both male and female journalists expressing their disgust at the photo?

Why did it spur a discussion among my colleagues about the countless instances of sexism they’ve experienced over the years in all sorts of different journalism organizations?

Why was the knee-jerk reaction of the SPJ to defend the photo as opposed to taking more than a few hours to discuss the complaint?

And finally, why are we as journalists willing to call out others in positions of authority on their overt and less-overt acts of discrimination, but so unwilling to turn the looking glass on ourselves?

The real damage

Honestly, I think Baca is angry out of proportion. At this point – and I could be wrong again – I’d conclude: The photo is sexist, but it’s a misdemeanor, not a high crime. 

Still, I wonder how much of Baca’s outrage is due to SPJ’s terse and timid response. It reminds me of the old journalism expression, “It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.”

It’s not the sexism, it’s the silence.

You know what the real tragedy is? Excellent journalists like Marie Baca won’t ever run for SPJ’s board of directors. And she is excellent. I looked her up.

Baca is versatile enough to report deeply about “forced pooling” in shale drilling for ProPublica and then turn around and write this for The Wall Street Journal: “Near Lake Tahoe There’s a Bear So Tough, Bullets Bounce Off His Head.”

She’s the kind of journalist we need running SPJ. But I wonder if she’ll even renew her SPJ membership when the next bill arrives.

The real problem

Without violating any confidences, I can tell you this…

Some of my fellow board members don’t think this even deserves a discussion. There was a lot of, “I would hate to see this incident detract from the important work we have to do.”

Thing is, we don’t have a lot of work more important than this. SPJ’s board tends to obsess over “chapter financial report requirements” and “election of unaffiliated delegates” – which actually means little to SPJ, even less to me, and nothing to you.

Meanwhile, Baca and dozens of other journalists are publicly questioning a public SPJ decision. Even if you don’t mind the cover image, you can acknowledge an image problem.

It’s not going away either, because Baca isn’t backing down…

I will continue to demand that SPJ investigate the cover photo situation, acknowledge the sexism inherent therein, come up with a plan to prevent this from happening in the future, and issue a public statement describing all of these things.

Want to know the weirdest part? Six men sit on SPJ’s board of directors – along with 14 women, which includes the current president and the next one.

So if Baca isn’t fighting The Man. She’s fighting The Woman.

SPJ Diversity chair Dori Zinn, a friend of mine, opined last night. Read her here. I kind of doubt SPJ will tweet about either of our posts today.

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  • mariecbaca

    Thank you very much for this thoughtful response, Michael. And you’re right: my anger has been amplified by SPJ’s response. Appreciate you continuing the dialogue.

  • Ross

    There is nothing sexist about embracing the natural male or female body. For the longest time, feminists fought for women to be able to freely embrace their natural physique as they choose; without fear of judgment or punishment from laws which required women to remain fully clothed in the public. These laws restricted womens’ freedom of expression, and infringed upon their rights to live as they like, all because of the opinion of people who viewed themselves as morally superior. These were the noble days of feminism, because they truly fought against an oppressive system that restricted their freedom of expression along with many other ideals. Today, we see that the PC culture has taken the exact opposite stance on freedom of expression. The purveyors of PC culture believe that a woman’s freedom to embrace her body and sexuality is wrong, and that women who do so (in advertisements or TV) are morally misguided and are victims of an oppressive culture. In banning any usage of imagery embracing the natural physique of either sex, the purveyors of the PC culture align themselves with the views of ultra conservatives and radical islamists: who believe that imagery depicting women freely embracing their bodies is immoral and unacceptable in the public setting. The backlash this article has faced is yet another example of the PC culture restricting our freedom of expression as journalists and freedom of choice for women. And God knows that if the cover was a shirtless male not one person would hear a pin drop from all those who’ve complained.

  • Lautaro Fonz

    Would it be sexist if it was a muscular man running in a tanktop showing his glorious arms of iron? Nobody besides some MGTOW extremists would say so. So why do you feel this is different Michael? Perhaps it would interest you to know that psychologists have long since demonstrated the existence of what is referred to as the “women are wonderful” effect. This describes the fact that not only do women perceive issues in a manner that is biased towards females, but so do men.

  • ArsVampyre

    You’re wrong. It’s not sexist unless you think photos of women doing something are automatically sexist.

    Baca is hyper-sensitive and no amount of appeasement will correct the problem. She’s best written off.

    No, she’s not a good journalist. She’s a biased hack. If the picture in question had been a man instead? You would have heard nothing.

    So who’s the sexist? Baca is.

  • Shogun1x


  • gerryq

    So long as journalists remember the second part of the referenced lyric, they’re good with me.

    (I’m guessing the person who chose the headline was thinking of it, but didn’t realise it would be considered too naughty by today’s piano-leg drapers.)

    [Edit] Wait… I can’t believe this – “I love big buts” is the headline on THIS article, not the magazine? If it was on the magazine I’d think it was funny and clever, maybe a little sexist too, but whatever. But the magazine that just showed a woman training, for the headline “Training Day”???

  • You’re wrong. Photos of women running are not sexist. Holding this standard of women, when it would not be held of a man from the same angle in the same clothing, is arguably the only sexist element here.

    The fact that this person finds the photo sexist says nothing about the photo. But it does give an insight into how she sees the world. And apparently how easily swayed you are.

  • “Why have I received hundreds of social media comments from both male and female journalists expressing their disgust at the photo?”

    Simple answer? Because you’re a woman.

    People would push their own sons under a bus to be seen as sticking up for you. You’re the type of person that shut down Cassie Jaye’s screenings of a documentary on male issues because you found it offensive, but not *quite* as offensive as this cover.

  • ThatGuy

    If this was this photograph of a man’s spandex-clad rear http://media.gettyimages.com/photos/man-running-on-urban-path-view-from-behind-picture-id106672266 nobody would would bat an eye.

    The only person who’d find this sexist is one indoctrinated with Marxist feminist ideology.

  • popehentai

    So, please tell, just what IS sexist about this image?

  • popehentai

    So just what about this photo is sexist? Baca never answers. Baca never even gives a reason to start with… and you never ask. As a journalist wouldn’t that be a necessary question? All i see in the image is a fit person exercising. Someone in shape continuing to keep themselves that way. An attitude to aspire to. All of which perfectly encapsulates the headline.

    The SPJ response was the only proper one. They had done nothing wrong. Capitulate to the perpetually offended like Baca and they only demand more, knowing that they just have to screech their buzzwords at you to get what they want. Look at all her demands. Over a magazine cover. An investigation, acknowledgement, apology, action plan, and public apology. All over an editors choice of an image, where the person offended by it cannot even explain WHY its offensive.

    This is just another case of offense mongers going out of their way to find something to be offended over, because the world isn’t as bad as they pretend it is.

  • spitzs

    Easiest way to see if something is actually sexist is to identify the sex based biases of the person who did it. You’ve called the image sexist, for instance, so you’ve accused the creators of the image of holding sexist views of women. What are those views?

    If they don’t exist, then no sexism has been addressed. If the people don’t support the claims you’ve associated with them in order to call them sexists, then they are not sexist based on those claims.

    It’s also not likely that people will actually defend any of the claims associated with them. Don’t believe me? Find an example of someone describing how an image is sexist and then think of how many people you know who have ever openly acted with motivations that match that description.

    It’s hard to find examples in the article since Baca doesn’t really describe anything specifically and even goes so far as to say the sexism is “inherent”(ie: it will be called sexist even if no sepcific sexist ideas played into its creation at all), but looking at her statement about not deserving as much respect as her older white male colleagues, how many of your peers can you identify as saying women don’t deserve as much respect as old white men. Explicitly, mind you. Because if you’re going to be going down the difficult road, you can make them the subject of your next article.

    In reality, when people say things like “sexism” today, they aren’t referring to any clear sexist ideas or the people who hold them. They create taboos that can be associated with sexism, and use the fear of association to control content. The SPJ has already stated there was no sexism involved. Walsh already stated there was no sexism involved. No actual example of sexism has been identified and instead the critic you’ve highlighted is from someone who identifies sexism as an inherent trait of the image rather than any actual idea about sex. Even your own calling it “sexist” was not based on identifying any clear sexist idea.

    Addressing sexism is not the issue you’re dealing with. Maintaining the appearance of not being sexist by following the arbitrary standards of people who will accuse you of being sexist. But if not taking the easy rode means you don’t shy away from accusations of sexism, it also means you don’t acquiesce simply because you were accused.

    If I was looking into the sexism of this at all, since it’s just a photo, I would look for the original concept work regarding the issue and cover. If you can a document pointing out that they were looking for a nice fat ass because that’s all women are good for, then maybe you’re on to something. And I suppose the SPJ board of directors meetings consist of 14 women showing off their asses while 6 men wave score cards.

    Of course, if the SPJ depends on these people funding them to exist, the SPJ can be crushed by enough of them regardless of what is right or true. If people need to say they’re an ass in order to eat, they’ll do it. If journalists are the ones hiding their food until they say it… well, I don’t think anyone will be very surprised by that.

  • ThirteenthLetter

    It’s wise for SPJ to drop the issue, ignore Baca’s continued complaining, and refuse to get into it further; people who get upset about a picture like this are never going to be happy, and attempting to appease them is impossible — it just makes them ask for more.


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