Gender Gap Gone?

Women reign at 2009 Goldsmith investigative reporting awards

CAMBRIDGE, MA. When the team of Washington Post investigative reporters gathered in their editor’s office to put the finishing touches on a groundbreaking series on egregious housing violations in the nation’s capital, one thing caught their attention: all the people in the room were women. In a measure of how far women have come in the top ranks of journalism, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary to them. It was all in a day’s work.

The dogged reporting skills of Debbie Cenziper and Sarah Cohen earned them one of journalism’s highest (and most lucrative) honors, the $25,000 2009 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded Tuesday night by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The investigative editor for the Post series was newspaper veteran Barbara Vobjeda and their Metro researcher was—you guessed it—a young woman named Meg Smith.

“We noticed it at the end. We were all huddled in Barbara’s office and looked around the room and saw all women,” recalled Cenziper, who came to the Post eighteen months ago after a five-year stint at the Miami Herald. While there, she won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for a year-long series on housing corruption—a series that was also a Goldsmith prize finalist that year. “I’ve always worked for very strong, very competent women. So it’s not new for me,” said the thirty-eight-year-old Cenziper. Her older colleague Cohen, an expert in database reporting who shared in the Post’s 2002 Pulitzer for investigative reporting and was a 2007 Goldsmith finalist, agreed.

The prominence of women in political and investigative journalism today was affirmed several times over Tuesday evening, as women for the first time dominated the winning Goldsmith awards in political journalism, handed out at the annual Harvard Kennedy School ceremony. New Yorker writer Jane Mayer got the Goldsmith trade book prize for The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, and PBS senior correspondent Gwen Ifill received the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism.

In presenting the career award, Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones noted that Ifill, who has just published The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, was “a breakthrough in her own right—as a woman, as an African American and—most of all—as a respected professional journalist whose sense of fairness and objectivity has made her the choice to moderate two vice-presidential debates.”

“I always wanted to be a journalist,” said Ifill, who cut her teeth at Boston and Baltimore newspapers before moving to Washington, D.C. to cover politics for The Washington Post, The New York Times, and NBC News. In 1999, she joined PBS as a senior correspondent for the nightly NewsHour and as moderator of the weekly political analysis roundtable. She recalled that her high school guidance counselor had discouraged her from even applying to Simmons College in Boston, but that her tenacity since then had taught her “how much extra credibility you can get by exceeding expectations.”

Ironically, when Ifill was asked why her new book on race in politics largely focuses on the recent success of African American men, she said it was because there “are a lot fewer women (politicians) at the breakthrough level than men…We’re not quite there yet.” (Video of the ceremony and her talk can be seen at the Shorenstein Web site.)

The Washington Post team of Cenziper and Cohen noted in an interview that, at their paper, gender has become largely irrelevant as more and more women have risen to power—including new managing editor Elizabeth Spayd (in January, she became the first woman in that post in the paper’s history) and publisher Katharine Weymouth, granddaughter of the Post’s legendary leader, the late Katharine Graham. The Post’s investigative journalism ranks, once largely male (think Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward), have increasingly included women reporters in recent years. Veteran national security reporter Dana Priest won Pulitzers in 2006 and 2008 for her investigative work, and was also a Goldsmith finalist in both years. Jo Becker, who was at the Post for about seven years before joining The New York Times, shared last year’s Pulitzer for national reporting with Barton Gellman for a Post investigative series on former Vice-President Dick Cheney. The duo earlier won the 2008 Goldsmith investigative reporting prize for that series. And Susan Schmidt, now at The Wall Street Journal, won the 2006 Pulitzer for investigative reporting (and was a Goldsmith finalist as well) as part of a Washington Post team that unearthed congressional corruption involving Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

So keep an eye out for the Cenziper/Cohen series, “Forced Out,” whose Goldsmith win certainly makes it a strong contender for this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, which will be announced on April 20 (Shorenstein director Jones has said that the Goldsmith Prize is often “the Golden Globe to the Pulitzers’ Oscars”). The seven main pieces and twenty follow-ups demonstrated how D.C. landlords forced tenants out of rent-controlled apartments—often by refusing to make repairs or turning off the heat—apparently to make way for more lucrative new housing. The Shorenstein Center said that, as a result of the investigation, the Washington D.C. attorney general sued twenty-three landlords, the city fired half of its housing inspection force, and “The Tenant Protection Act of 2008” was introduced.

The Goldsmith awards provide a snapshot of the progress of women in investigative and public affairs journalism over the past two decades. Overall, since 1992, there have been sixteen women among the more than fifty journalists on the winning investigative reporting teams, and six of the eighteen career journalism awards have gone to women. The Goldsmith journalism book awards, however, have overwhelmingly gone to men, with only three women—including Mayer this year—among the thirty-three award-winning authors and co-authors.

Mayer noted that women had increasingly moved into covering national security issues that were once the domain of male reporters. Things have come a long way for her personally since 1984, when she became the first female White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She recalls being told by one editor that the male reporters would be doing the national security stories, but she would be the one that would have to cover Nancy Reagan’s designer wardrobe if need be.

“Women at the top have made a big difference,” said Mayer, who was hired at The New Yorker by then-editor Tina Brown, and co-authored an earlier book with Jill Abramson, now the managing editor at The New York Times.

The latest Goldsmith awards “show how far women have come in the important jobs in journalism,” said longtime journalist Ellen Hume, a former Washington reporter with Mayer at the Journal and, earlier, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times’s Washington bureau. Hume is now the research director at the cutting-edge Center for Future Civic Media at MIT.

The Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, administered by the Shorenstein Center, honors journalism that “best promotes more effective and ethical conduct of government, the making of public policy, or the practice of politics.” The Goldsmith awards are funded by an annual grant from the Goldsmith Fund of the Greenfield Foundation. The winner among the six previously announced finalists was kept secret until the Tuesday night ceremony.

At a follow-up seminar on the state of investigative journalism yesterday, it was clear that there was no shortage of investigative topics for journalists to tackle, but a great deal of staff resources, time (months to a year or more, not hours or days) and old-fashioned shoe leather were still required to get results. The 2009 finalists, who received $10,000 per organization, said that they had had strong support from their editors and media organizations in doing so, despite the wave of cutbacks in the industry.

The five investigative reporting finalists included New York Times reporter David Barstow, for a series on the Pentagon’s misuse of military analysts to promote the Iraq war on television and elsewhere (it won the Polk award for national reporting last month); a five-person team from The Charlotte Observer that investigated how a company that produces chicken parts for market endangered the safety of its largely immigrant workers; a painstaking investigation by the Detroit Free Press that brought down the city’s mayor, leading to his resignation and prosecution for multiple felonies; a two-person team from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that investigated a fraudulent MBA awarded to a local businesswoman who happened to be the West Virginia governor’s daughter; and a series by the new non-profit investigative journalism project ProPublica, whose reporter, Abrahm Lustgarten, exposed the potential threat to drinking water from unregulated drilling for natural gas. Most of the investigative projects included online multimedia presentations that accompanied the lengthy stories.

While women largely swept the Goldsmith journalism awards, the 2009 Goldsmith prize for an academic book on the media went to a Princeton University political scientist, Markus Prior, for Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections.

New York Times reporter Barstow, a 2004 Pulitzer public service award winner for a worker safety series that also won the Goldsmith award, commented after the investigative journalism panel that, while there was considerable progress by women in journalism, there was still much to be done in recruiting minority journalists into journalism.

“The newsroom is doing quite well in terms of women at all levels playing more significant roles,” he said. “But it’s a really significant problem that we do not have more members of minority groups in the newsroom,” a problem that, Barstow noted, is certainly not helped by current newsroom downsizing and job cutbacks. He is hopeful that a more diverse, younger, group working in new media and online will play a far more significant role in changing the face of journalism in the years to come.

Russell was a 2007 judge for the Goldsmith investigative reporting prize.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.