Friday, April 9, 2010

We've Come a Long Way

by Jean Henry Mead

Women reporters have come a long way since the early days of journalism. Fresh out of college, I began working as a news reporter for a California daily newspaper. At that time, manual typewriters were the only means of getting our stories to press. Never a great typist, I bought an Olivetti electric which I hauled back and forth to work. It wasn’t long before everyone in the news room had one.

Computers were a God send and I bought my first in 1981. When newspapers finally discovered their versatility, they were called video display terminals or VDTs. By then I was freelancing and editing an instate magazine.

Before the 1960s, women news reporters were mainly confined to the society pages or as copy editors. Later, those of us “lucky” enough to be on the police beat--which meant chasing ambulances and investigating train wrecks--were not allowed to dress casually. Even slacks were prohibited and certainly not tennis shoes or jeans. I remember arriving at a horrific train wreck with box cars piled on top of one another, wearing a dress, nylons and heels. I returned to the office looking as though I had been in the train wreck.

Police officers ignored my questions because women weren’t supposed to report on accidents and robberies. The same was true at city hall. So when the mayor was suspected of illegal practices, I went after him in print with every bit of evidence I could gather. He was subsequently relieved of his duties.

One of my aticles helped the F.B.I. capture a bank robber, but my accomplishments pale compared to those of a broadcast journalist that I admire. Hank Phillippi Ryan (pictured above) works for Boston’s NBC affiliate, 7News. Her investigative reporting has resulted in new laws enacted, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosures and millions of dollars paid in restitution.

Hank has won an astounding 26 Emmys, ten Edward R. Murrow Awards and dozens of other journalistic kudos. She began her career as a political reporter in 1975 in Indianapolis, and was later assigned to beats such as medical, movie critic and on-the-road feature reporter in Atlanta, where every Monday morning she would close her eyes and point to a map. That’s where she’d go to find a feature story, or what reporters call a “kicker.”

She said, “They called me ‘something out of nothing productions’ because I could find a story anywhere.” In 1988 she was assigned to write the long-form “think pieces” for presidential conventions. From that time on, she was an investigative reporter.

“Over the past thirty years I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, chased down criminals and confronted corrupt politicians—and had many a door slammed in my face. But the idea that I can change lives and even change laws is so gratifying. It’s a big responsibility, which I take very seriously. But when a tough story comes through and changes are made as a result—the rewards are immense.”

Hank has also found time to write four mystery novels. Her Prme Time book won the Agatha Award for first novel and Air Time has been nominated for another Agatha.


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Well,Jean, thank you so much!And yes, it's been quite a continuing journey--in fact, I got my first job in broadcasting, in radio, only because of my gender!

I applied for the job as a radio reporter--no experience whatsoever!--but reminded the news director:
Your license is up for renewal at the FCC--and you dont have any women working here.

The next day, I was hired.

And you know--I'm pretty proud of that. Kind of--being a part of history.

And Jean--you were leading the charge! Congratulations..and endless gratitude.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

ANd oh, yes, thank you--PRIME TIME did win the Agatha for Best first Mystery! And now, AIR TIME (book 3) is nominated for the Agatha for Best Mystery of 2009!

Delighted with the second half of my career!

Jean Henry Mead said...

You're an inspiration for all women journalists, Hank. I don't know how you do it all.

Bill Kirton said...

You both acknowledge that it's an exciting and useful profession but I know the amount of work it entails too. Before she started her kids production line, my daughter was a radio journalist and I remember well her descriptions of some of the awful jobs - such as interviewing recently bereaved parents. Good for you two, to have made it in a context where the odds were stacked against you.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Bill. It's a difficult--at times--but very rewarding profession.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Thanks, Bill! Yes--I'm sure she had some real eye-opening experiences...

ANd Jean--I bet you have lots of amazing stories, too. I do remember the stockings and heels days!

Jaden Terrell said...

Jean and Hank,

I can't even begin to imagine what it much have been like to be at the forefront of women in journalism. It's hard to believe it was such a short time ago that a female "hard-news" journalist was a rarity.

Thank you.

And congratulations on another Agatha nomination!

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. Enjoyed. Thanks.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Although bias may still exist, we now generally accept journalism for its message without focussing on the reporter's sex or race. Once women sports casters were accepted as the norm, everything else seems small.