The streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, are typically peaceful, but last September, amid outcry over a police shooting of an African-American man, protesters by the hundreds came out to march on the city in a groundswell of racial division not seen in decades.
Sarah-Blake Morgan, a 27-year-old multimedia journalist at Charlotte station WBTV, was energized — and also tested — as she reported live, encircled by the chanting, shouting mass of unrest.
“Usually I feel safe,” she said, explaining that, although she does her nightly live shots alone, she doesn’t carry a Taser or even pepper spray.
But as the street protests grew angrier, and the throngs bolder, Morgan, who had to call for backup (later, her station hired full-time security) realized just how vulnerable she was as she walked for miles alongside the crowds, carrying her camera gear in her backpack, broadcasting live for hours.
Morgan, like several other women who spoke with News Photographer Magazine, lauded her female colleagues who are carving their own niche covering news. Their numbers are increasing, she added, even as their pay is not, with some like her being told they need to cede their cameras for an anchor spot if they hope to move up and earn more.
“I think that there are so many talented and determined women who are going after this business full-heartedly and so bravely,” said Morgan, a Lee University graduate working professionally for five years.
At first, the crowd directed its anger at the police, but by the second and third nights, Morgan said, protesters began turning violence toward the media.
“I had something hit me so hard that it pummeled me in the back and knocked the wind out of me,” she recalled. “I don’t know what it was. It felt like a softball. A newspaper reporter who was nearby had to scoop me up and pull me out of there.”
The fourth night as she was reporting live — her mascara a hot mess as her eyes welled up from the tear gas — a girl who was protesting chucked a water bottle at her face.
There was also a moment amid the cacophony of yelling, shouting and pushing when gunshots went off. And Morgan quickly had to assess her surroundings and make some journalistic choices about what was going on.
“You hear it, you see a bunch of people running. Tear gas goes off. So I pulled this woman aside, and she’s screaming, and she’s saying, ‘The cops shot him. The cops shot him,” Morgan said. Does she report that live on the air? No, she waits for the facts.
And with that, Morgan’s typical independence and drive to get the true story were tempered by the recognition that, indeed, she had been vulnerable. She also knew in hindsight that, while covering the story had been dicey, working in the thick of it is exactly where she wants to be.
“It was hard to witness,” she recalled. “I had things said to me that I'd never had said to me, but there was lot of compassion, and people were very kind.”
“I was in my element as a journalist being there. This is what I do this job for, to document that.”
Morgan, who is married to an investigative reporter, is also the creator of the Facebook group MMJane. The social media community is a digital gathering spot for more than 1,200 female multimedia journalists who are among those being hired in increasing numbers across the nation for their skills as a triple threat. They can shoot, write and edit their stories independently, making them highly valuable in the news world, where jobs are shrinking and demands escalating.
“Despite the fact that I think that journalism is still very much a boys club, there are people who are pushing through that and not letting anyone stop them,” Morgan said.
IN ARIZONA, longtime photographer-videographer Lynn French, 44, is happily using what she learned working for decades in television at a new job at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law after an award-winning career at stations in the Southwest.
She loves helping her legal colleagues learn how to better showcase their stories and their academic mission. And she enjoys getting to see the difference between her early days and her younger peers, whom she teaches and mentors at the nearby Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
In her classes, “half or more are women,” French said. “I don’t think they feel the barriers that I did in 1991, ’92, ’93 when I was just starting. I think they see the world as their oyster. I just don’t see that disparity,” French said.
“TV news photography 25 years ago was a whole lot of guys and just a few women,” she added.
When she was starting, French said, the the camera gear’s bulk was a limiting factor for many women.
“If it wasn’t for the fact that I came from a ranching and farming background where bucking bales of hay wasn’t a big deal, it would have been really challenging,” French said.
As the equipment has gotten better and, with that, lighter, more women have become interested in photojournalism, she believes. Many of them are attracted to the independence of a multimedia journalist.
“With the multimedia journalist, talent is now shooting. I feel like a lot of those barriers have disappeared for women. I feel like it’s in a good place for women to have that equality," French said.
When she was starting, there were few mentors for French to reach out to. An Eastern New Mexico University alum, French remembers being so excited and proud to see, in the late ’90s, the first woman win the Associated Press Photographer of the Year in New Mexico.
“You could count on one hand the women who were working at a high level in TV news and even in still photography. They had found a way but were still kind of the odd person out,” she recalled.
Her role now is gratifying as a cheerleader for young women on a career path where they no longer stand out because of their gender.
More women in photojournalism should take on leadership roles, using their wisdom to help other women understand the demands and how to establish themselves with credibility, she added.
“Your experience never leaves you,” she said. “I enjoy helping these students look at where they want to go, in the shifting landscape they are trying to make their way in, and at the same time just helping them to seek good foundational skills."
IN ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA, Danese Kenon does her share of mentoring on the job. Now a photo editor at the Tampa Bay Times after years of making images on the street, she says her own mentors were often other African-Americans and typically men, who showed her a brotherly respect.
When she attended photo workshops, “it was like, ‘Hey! How are you?’” as she connected with other female photojournalists whom she rarely saw on the job. “There was this instant bond.”
“I think that it’s growing; you see more women working, but not in traditional newspapers. I don’t think there are that many of us even now,” she adds.
As publishing models shift and presentation needs change, women will still be working, but what they do and how will shift, Kenon believes.
“I think that women still have a voice, but it'’s going to look very different," she said, with more women working independently as freelancers and also taking roles as multimedia journalists.
She enjoys working with the young women who intern at her newspaper who are just beginning their own careers.
“I see more students coming out with more skills — not just saying, ‘Photography is the only thing I do,’” said Kenon. “I think they are just a more well-rounded journalist, and photography is their speciality.”
That shift in expectation has also transferred to newsroom bosses as well.
“I think it’s also that the management style has changed,” Kenon said. “People want more of their journalists.”
That demand often translates to stress for young women as they try to help navigate expectations and priorities at work — and in life.
“This new generation coming up, I don’t think they have the pressures of being married at 25 or 30, but I think the multitasking they are being asked to do, to that level, is exhausting,” Kenon says. “If not done correctly, it can be overwhelming, and so you kind of encourage them to break it all down and to communicate and collaborate.”
Kenon also stresses that younger women in photojournalism should consider taking business classes. Because they may likely work for themselves at some point, learning to create a viable business model and to navigate the politics of business are crucial. It’s not an idea that was suggested to her as she was fashioning her own career.
“For women in particular, you need to prepare for being on your own. If it happens, what is your plan B, C, D, E and F?” she said. “You can still tell stories to maintain your vision and voice — even if you end up doing something different in your life.”
The news business is uncertain, and Kenon has talked to women who have left the newsroom and are scared.
“They ask, ‘What should I be doing?’ And I say, ‘Don’t stop taking pictures. Just don't stop’ … I think for women in general, we need to also feed our own spirits and passions,” said Kenon.