Written by Wendy Bowman Tuesday, January 15 2013
Snapshot: Geneva Overholser, professor and director, USC Annenberg School of Journalism
A longtime advocate for women’s ability to speak up and let their voices be heard to make a difference in the world, 64-year-old Geneva Overholser gained notoriety in the early 1990s when as editor of The Des Moines Register she opted to use the name and photographs of Iowa rape victim Nancy Ziegenmeyer in a five-part series of articles. Based on her strong belief that keeping the identities of rape victims anonymous only serves to stigmatize the crime even further, the series led the paper to capture the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
In June 2013 Overholser will leave her position at the University of Southern California. Overholser's impressive career includes serving as an ombudsman of The Washington Post; a member of the editorial board of The New York Times; syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group; and reporter for the Colorado Springs Sun. She’s also been a columnist for the Columbia Journalism Review and frequent contributor to Poynter.org, and she spent five years overseas working and writing in Paris and Kinshasa.
Here, she shares her insights into how women can impact media going forward, how she inspired a staff to do the kind of visionary work that earns a Pulitzer and where women are when it comes to creating true equality.
Womenetics: How did you inspire your staff to win a Pulitzer at The Des Moines Register?
Geneva Overholser: I was lucky. The Register was a glorious newspaper in those days and had a staff who were used to winning Pulitzers. I walked into the newsroom and became conductor of a wonderful orchestra, and all I needed to do was help each player to play as best as they could. I saw that and took great joy in trying to see whose talent would fit with what story and also who needed encouragement – whose mother was ill and whose child was having difficulties.
We did a remarkable series on a woman who had been raped and wanted to tell her story.
I’ll take you back to 1988 – that was a period when nobody talked about rape. The whole thing began with a Supreme Court case in Florida that looked at this question of publishing rape victim's names. Somebody from The New York Times called me to get a comment for an article he was writing about the Florida newspaper that had used a rape victim’s name.
As a good feminist, I could explain why that was a bad thing to do because of the stigma of rape. I understood why editors withhold names. But it had always struck me that this practice also contributes to the stigma because only in this one case do we withhold names of adult victims of crime. I felt that this infantilizes women and contributes to the continuation of the stigma, and I had qualms about that. After the article, at the invitation of The Times, I wrote an opinion piece, sharing this view.
The husband of a woman in Grinnell, Iowa, who had just been raped, saw the piece (it also appeared in the Register) and told his wife. She had been troubled by the signals that she had been getting – that she shouldn’t be talking about it, as if she were somehow to blame. She called me, and I just happened to pick up my phone. This woman was weeping and said, “Can I talk to you about something? I was raped, and I want my story told.” So, after the trial was complete, a wonderful reporter wrote a powerful five-part series that showed great courage because it was extremely straightforward and honest.
I knew it would be hard for people to read, and I wrote an editor’s note cautioning people about the content…but it was received powerfully, and it was on tons of TV shows and in magazines, and The Sunday New York Times ran a big piece about it.
It was amazing and overwhelming because it was a time when nobody confronted rape. Then, we won a Pulitzer Prize for public service. It cited the fact that we had used the name, and some have seen it since then as a campaign to use names. But I think the power of the piece was that it confronted directly this crime that had been kept in dark corners. What we should do in journalism is shine light in dark corners, and boy, did we ever do that. It was a hell of piece.
Womenetics: Why should women be more involved in the media today?
Overholser: The media are going through such changes, and I urge women to think about what role they can play. It is men who typically weigh in on that and men who write letters to the editor and op-ed pieces, and we as women tend to shy away from that. I urge women to believe in their voices and that they need to be heard in public-policy debates and to be heard as we determine the future of journalism.
We now are moving more and more online in the media world. More media are digital, and that offers a great opportunity for democratization of the media. It won’t happen unless women and people of color enter into that discussion. Traditional media in this country have generally been owned and led by white men, and that creates all kinds of absence of voice when it comes time for important public debates. Now the opportunity has opened up to change that, being sure that women are doing startups on the web and beginning nonprofits.
For example, one thing that is happening in communities throughout the country – just as women have been largely responsible for education and arts and other aspects of community life – we’re also going to have to be responsible for having a continued flow of reliable information. We can’t assume it’s going to be there when we turn on the tube for free or that the newspaper will keep coming every day. Many community foundations are led by women, and women tend to be good at partnering. Community foundations need to partner with others to decide how to continue good journalism, and that will shape media in a powerful and effective way and ensure women’s voices are heard.
Women must consider themselves responsible for the quality of media that comes their way, and if it’s not good, they can’t think they’re helpless victims. We often let the boys go in and tussle it out. Women’s voices – and people of color – have to be heard in this country.
Womenetics: How have you seen women’s role in media change since you’ve been a journalist?
Overholser: I started out as a newspaper reporter in 1971, so I’d say even when I came into journalism at that time it concerned me that there often seemed to be quite a disconnect between newspaper and community. So, one good change is that the people formally known as the audience are now very much in the ring helping to create the media, as well as to consume it.
Those in newspapers used to have a lock, along with other journalists, in what people knew. They’d tell people what they needed to know every day when they would pick up the paper and turn on the television. Now, there are all kinds of ways for people to create news through social media and online. It needs to be a collaborative exercise, which will lead to greater democratization and to hearing a community’s voice more fully.
The downside is people are not quite sure what is credible. Back in the day, at least there were efforts to produce curated, proportional, reliable and verifiable news reports. Traditional journalists were not perfect – in fact, they were far from perfect – but the public usually knew what they were getting and that there were thoughtful editors behind it. Now it’s kind of a cacophony of voices.
Womenetics: What are your thoughts on where women are in the social movement right now?
Overholser: I hope that we will neither feel like we’ve accomplished nothing – because we, as a nation and women, have accomplished an enormous amount – nor that we’ve finished and there is nothing more to do or that we can do.
We’re kind of stalled right now. We need to press for change in our work lives and in our social policies so that we have workplaces that require maternity leaves with pay and have better child-care arrangements and recognize that we’re also caring for aging parents sometimes. As a society, we aren’t very good at accommodating the realities in people’s lives.
We’ve come an enormous distance in terms of what opportunities women have to take different jobs and take leadership and run for office. But is the workplace accommodating them or their husbands when they’re trying to raise children and take care of aging parents, and is society recognizing the need for better childcare?
Part of our responsibility as women is we need to keep our voices in the public-policy debate and keep asserting that this country, which has enormous wealth and power, needs to put its own citizens and their health and welfare more prominently in the debate, especially as we focus on the defense department and bailing out banks.
Womenetics: How is media playing a part in social change?
Overholser: Technology has made so many sources of information available. Information moves much more quickly now. Even with the recent tragedy in Newtown, so many things came out early that were wrong – Adam Lanza was confused with his brother, Ryan Lanza, and his mother was thought to be a kindergarten teacher at the school. With things moving so quickly, the media are not always careful, and law enforcement doesn’t know, either. We’re used to not seeing the sausage making, but we used to be able to get a lot of stuff worked out and then get it into the paper the next morning. The nature of news didn’t move as quickly as it does now.
Now we have to become our own editors and think about which sites we trust, and who’s funding what and what is their commitment and what is their goal: Are they trying to be measured and objective and balanced?
We need to have more media literacy to be able to go to a website and see who is funding it and see if what they are telling us is in a straight-forward way and what their intent is.
Womenetics: What do you see in the field working?
Overholser: I think with things like your own website, Womenetics, and the website BlogHer, and many others, that there are now opportunities for women to go online and speak out and be heard – especially on social media. Women can get in touch with one another and share everything from recipes to photos, and I personally wish more women would use social media tools to urge one another on in making social policy change. But the opportunity is there, and that is a great thing.
The economic underpinnings have collapsed for traditional media. It was advertising that really paid for newspapers. Advertising isn’t producing that revenue online, and we don’t know what’s going to take the place of it. Nonprofits and foundations will play a role, and I think the public is going to have to pay more for news, and no one wants to. We can’t have watchdog reporting that is free all the time. People have to be paid to do the hard work of investigative reporting. As of now, at least, much of it still requires a professional to do it. The role of professional paid journalists is not going to go away, and communities are going to have to figure out how they are going to sustain it.
We have an African-American president and female secretary of state. People are frightened because there’s such a degree of change, and that makes them uncomfortable, and it does not look like a familiar world. I’m exhilarated, myself. It used to be everybody was white and male who was in power There was a level of comfort to that and all things were predictable. Nothing is predictable now. We’re living in a state of constant change.
Womenetics: What is the most important piece of advice you would you give a woman today?
Overholser: Never forget that your voice is essential, that your participation in public life is critically needed, and that you have every right and even responsibility to speak out and to be engaged in civic life. We underestimate our wisdom as women. We underestimate the level of deep understanding that we can bring to public policy because of our experiences as mothers and daughters and sisters and wives. I really feel like I still hear young women questioning themselves, and I want to slap them on the back of the head and say, “I want us as women to believe in ourselves.”
More women changing the face of media:
Jensine Larsen's World Pulse, a nonprofit media and communication network, gives a voice to the stories of women from across the world that might otherwise go untold.
Jean Kilbourne has been vocal about the adverse effects the advertising industry's depiction of womenhas on our society for both men and women.
Tired of the unbridled misogynism against both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election, Amy Siskind founded The New Agenda, a non-partisan organization focused on women's advancement.
Wendy Bowman is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance journalist. She spent 15-plus years as a writer and editor for Atlanta Business Chronicle, covering nonprofit business, homes and lifestyles, Atlanta visitors market and more. She currently writes for Riviera Orange County, The Atlantan and Men’s Book Atlanta magazines.