Everyweek we will feature the adventures of one amazing woman. We aim to celebrate the varied and colourful roles women play within industry and business. Experience inspirational, real stories by real women; Interested in being featured? Please send your adventures to firstname.lastname@example.orgFor previous adventures please click here
Adventures of Leigh Cuen Journalist, Poet, Blogger, Writer, Dreamer
As for my adventures, I've been writing for as long as I can remember. As a child, I asked my parents what job would let me support myself and write. When journalist came up as the only viable option (who can make a living as a poet?), I decided to become a journalist. I joined the school newspaper my freshman year of high school. My first job was an internship at the local newspaper, The Orange County Register. I've been working in media ever since. Two years ago, I moved to Israel/Palestine, working as a freelance correspondent.
The greatest challenges aspiring journalists face are access and ego. The work itself is difficult, emotionally draining, even dangerous. Yet for those of us enamored with the power of stories, none of that matters. I could talk about the dangerous situations I've witnessed as part of my work. You stumble home without any hope of sleeping at night.
But if I'm honest, that isn't the hardest part. When we publish these stories, victims no longer suffer the agony of bearing them alone. To be a part of someone's empowerment and survival is a beautiful gift. Afterwards, colors look brighter. Sunshine feels warmer.
When other people rely on you to tell the truth, it's easy for your career to get in the way of your story. Pride dampens your curiosity. Sometimes you start to believe you understand the situation, that you can define the truth.
The most important part of journalism is listening, not broadcasting. As a journalist, you must always remember that our voyeuristic work can objectify people. A journalist must face this challenge, struggling to never buy in to the subject's "otherness."
The hardest part of being a woman journalist is accessing the privilege to tell stories.
The second great challenge for a young female journalist is the industry itself. There are some young people without connections or financial resources who fall into success. But they are the rare exceptions. The odds are not in your favor.
As the financial model of traditional journalism crumbles, young women and people of color are increasingly marginalized. In the new digital landscape, journalists are viewed as 'brands.' This has only heightened the tendency to keep women in the 'pink ghetto,' writing about fashion and 'women's issues' rather than 'serious subjects' like politics and business. Even the creative publishing industry sufferes from acute gender discrimination.
Publications are scrambling for news that sells. That means you might write a brilliant story about inspiring women and the organization will promote it as a story of victimhood. Familiar tropes are profitable; people tend to read news that supports what they already think.
You might pitch a hundred stories about triumph and cooperation, while most publications only wants to pay for an article that highlights conflict. It's like Ryszard Kapuściński' wrote in 'The Emperor': "Everyone was trying to survive it his own way, according to the possibilities open to him."
Publications are losing money. Much of today’s content creation comes from those who can afford to work for free, or for less than a liveable wage. Much like Joan Didion said in her book Political Fictions, the modern media industry is defined by social privilege.
Meanwhile, people already on staff must fiercely protect their jobs. Men on staff are more likely to get promoted than their female colleagues. It's not a climate that encourages aspiring women.
Last year, Mario Tedeschini-Lal told me at the International Journalism Festival in Italy that being a young journalist today is like being a ballerina or an actor who works as a waiter. Journalists who don’t have the means to earn less than they need should expect to support themselves with other jobs. It’s a great challenge to work as a self-supporting female in this context. I remember listening to a panel discussion at an Israeli university, where an accomplished American novelist joked about ‘what a shame’ it is that he sees more women studying creative writing than men. “At least they’ll be well-read housewives with little book clubs,” he chuckled. So here is my advice for young women who want to work as journalists:
Whatever advantages you have or don't have, it doesn't matter. You need to focus on doing the best you can do. Don’t wait for permission. Don't wait for validation. If you want to be a journalist, do your research then go out and start asking questions. If no one will publish what you write, start a blog. Check your facts over and over.
Don't try to match other people's expectations. Don't accept false labels, such as that war is not a ‘women’s issue.’ Don’t give up. Define success for yourself. Take control of your own story. Now. Right now. Pick up your pen.
Leigh Cuen is a poet from California, currently living beside the Mediterranean Sea. Her writings have been published by Al Jazeera English, The Jerusalem Post, Salon.com and the International Museum of Women.