Photo: Martin Gommel

Bookmarked: Angie Chuang’s Five Female Journalists

The term “female journalist” implies that the gendered modifier is necessary because we assume that a plain old “journalist” is male. As with “male nurse,” “female journalist” is a retronym that reminds us of prevailing gender stereotypes in the field.

I grew up watching “girl journalists” like Hildy Johnson on His Girl Friday or Mary Tyler Moore. They were plucky females whose existences as journalists were a product more of their older, more experienced male mentors’ belief in them than of their own drive or storytelling skills.

Today’s journalists (or former journalists) who happen to be female are breaking ground, telling stories and uncovering crucial truths on a whole new level. Granted, the industry still has gender barriers to breach (see Amanda Bennett’s commentary below). But changes in the profession–the rise of nonprofit investigative journalism, the infusion of multimedia storytelling technologies, the departure of many legacy-media journalists from newspapers to literary-writing and academia (myself included)–have had an unintended, very positive, side effect.

Journalists who once stuck to traditional news journalism have been able to explore more literary styles as well as longer, more in-depth forms. The advent of multimedia has blurred the boundaries between documentary filmmakers, photographers and journalists. What strikes me about all of these works, whether they are 500-plus page tomes or less-than-five-minute videos, is that all of them involve a storyteller entrusted with a sensitive, complex and often heartbreaking story about others’ lives.

1. It’s not enough that Sheri Fink earned her M.D.-Ph.D. from Stanford University and then leveraged her medical and research knowledge into a groundbreaking, Pulitzer-winning investigation “The Deadly Choices at Memorial.” That 2009 project for ProPublica, a non-profit news organization, broke medial professionals’ cone of silence around the breakdown of care, which led the euthanizing of some critically ill patients as New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital was evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. You’d think she’d just have rested on her doctorly laurels and polished her Pulitzer. But Fink wasn’t done.

In her critically acclaimed book, Five Days at Memorial (Crown, 2013), she paints a far more detailed and contextualized picture, incorporating documents such as emails sent during the disaster, more eyewitness accounts, and interviews with the victims’ families as well as the doctors who made the difficult decisions in the final hours of the evacuation. It’s clear that as doctor and an accomplished journalist, Fink was uniquely qualified to earn her sources’ trust and get them to open up.

Victims and doctors alike are given equal measures of humanity and complexity, ultimately casting the story as a large-scale systemic breakdown between the government and the corporate healthcare-industrial complex that left dozens of human beings, patients and medical professionals alike, in the worst of all possible circumstances.

2. Amanda Bennett may have been a Sheryl Sandberg of the news business, standing at the helm of such organizations as Bloomberg News and The Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as having served as the Beijing correspondent and Pentagon/State Department reporter for The Wall Street Journal. But her most memorable writings (of many books published) are those in which she lays bare her personal and professional vulnerabilities. Her moving memoir, The Cost of Hope (Random House, 2012), chronicles her marriage and family life, focusing on a battle to prolong her husband’s life in the face of terminal kidney cancer.

Most recently, I was struck by Bennett’s honesty in a Washington Post commentary “Jill Abramson’s firing highlights important issues facing working women.” The May 19 essay followed a vociferous flurry of commentary on gender, leadership and a troubled industry after The New York Times’ firing of its first female editor.

Bennett spoke from a unique perspective: she was The Philadelphia Inquirer’s first female editor and in 2006, after only three years at the top post, was unceremoniously fired. Bennett steers clear of commenting on the inner workings of the Times and the true reason for Abramson’s dismissal, instead focusing on her own experience in a similarly painful and humiliating fall. Bennett reflects with brutal candor on the personality traits attributed to her leadership style: “Remote. Aloof. Disconnected. Did I have those flaws? I guess. Were they worse than the flaws of the men who preceded and succeeded me? I doubt it. I did what most self-respecting female leaders do: I blamed myself.”

3. Full disclosure: Vanessa Hua, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter and fiction writer/essayist, is a longtime friend of mine. We often exchange drafts for feedback, and I read earlier versions of her essay about a dutiful middle child coming to terms with her father’s sudden death as she, her husband, and twin toddler sons move in with her newly widowed mother.

That essay, “My Father Called For Me,” appears in Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions, a 2014 anthology. Curated and assembled by the publishing arm of the San Francisco Bay Area-based social network A Band of Women, the book entire is a gift that keeps on giving. Bite-sized essay after essay tells poignant, funny, surprising, tender stories of passing from one state to another. Hua’s contribution was always razor-sharp in its devastating details–her father’s old medication bottles, his paint-spattered loafers, her name called out among his final words. Now nestled among its sister stories, it both shines and complements the collective whole.

4. Neither traditional journalist nor traditional documentary filmmaker, Maisie Crow is a unique storyteller born of the multimedia storytelling revolution. This movement favors short forms, what has come to be known as the “audio slideshow” (still photos combined with an edited audio track of interviews and natural sound). Crow’s style is unmistakable, often a gut-punch of emotion, and nowadays she’s getting attention for The Last Clinic, a multi-faceted project about Mississippi’s last abortion provider done in conjunction with online platform The Atavist.

But I always come back to Crow’s older piece, “Hungry: Living with Prader-Willi Syndrome,” an video/audio slideshow that paints a devastatingly simple portrait of a father and son struggling with the younger’s missing-chromosome disorder.

5. More full disclosure: Nearly 20 years ago, when I was a reporter trainee at the Los Angeles Times, I had the incredible good luck to occupy a desk next to Sonia Nazario’s as she worked on projects that preceded her 2003 Pulitzer-winning series, “Enrique’s Journey.” You learn a lot eavesdropping on a master reporter, and I overheard firsthand the compassion that Nazario brought to her interactions with sources, how much it took to earn their trust as they shared difficult emotions and harrowing experiences.

Like Fink, Nazario didn’t stop her reporting when she collected her Pulitzer for the series–in this case about a teenaged Honduran boy’s harrowing journey, largely on top of freight trains, to be reunited with his mother in the United States. Her book version, also called Enrique’s Journey (Random House, 2006), adds a first-person account describing how, in order to research the story, she reconstructed Enrique’s path, atop the same trains he rode and meeting many of the same people along the way. The book also continues the story of Enrique’s family beyond the bittersweet ending of the 2002 series, into far more complexities and uncertainties that life on the fringes of the U.S.-Latin American economic and immigration landscapes are sure to entail.

Like “Hungry,” I teach this book every year and never tire of re-reading it to prepare for discussing it with a new group of students. Students are always struck by the spareness of Nazario’s style, the brevity of her sentences–and how much she manages to convey in few words.


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