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Doing It Their Way: Women Investigative Journalists Create Their Own Platforms

Journalist Sanne Terlingen working on a radio documentary on women in Eritrea/ Photo: Sanne Terlingen / VPRO Argos
Journalist Sanne Terlingen working on a radio documentary on women in Eritrea/ Photo: Sanne Terlingen / VPRO Argos

Sexism, difficulties balancing family and professional life, and threats both on and off line are a reality for women journalists around the world. On the sidelines of the “(Un)Covered: Investigative Journalism for Europe” conference organized by the European Centre for Press & Media Freedom and held earlier this year in Berlin, RFE/RL Jiri Dienstbier Journalism Fellow Masha Durkalic spoke to women investigative journalists Geesje van Haren (the Netherlands), Sanne Terlingen (the Netherlands), Pavla Holcova (Czech Republic), and Cecilia Anesi (Italy) about the challenges of their profession from a gender perspective.

“When I was in journalism school in the Netherlands, my teacher told me to go and work at a woman's magazine,” says Gessje van Haren. “I said 'Hell no!’ I wanted to work in investigative journalism.”

Van Haren decided in 2004 to set up her own media company,, a platform for investigative journalism. Among their ongoing projects is “Lost in Europe,” an investigation into the disappearance of 10,000 migrant children after their arrival on the continent. The project is a collaboration of journalists from Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy.

A Different Approach

Sanne Terlingen, who reports for the investigative program Argos VPRO aired on public radio in the Netherlands and also contributes to “Lost in Europe,” investigates human trafficking, sexual abuse of children, corruption, and migration, stories that regularly bring her in contact with some of the most vulnerable in society.

“This is sometimes a problem, because I always hear that as a woman I empathize too much with the people in my stories, so I can’t be critical,” Terlingen said. “For example, when I’m working on something about sexual abuse of children, I hear from colleagues, ‘She is identifying too much with this’ or ‘she is being too sensitive about this topic and she wants to protect the victims.’ But I am critical, and I always fact-check my stories.”

The empathy some women journalists show for their subjects, often derided as uncritical, can also be an advantage when working with marginalized groups.

“We've been working on rape cases, and it was really useful to have women on the team to talk to the victims,” said Cecilia Anesi, who is the co-founder of the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI), which has carried out several high-profile investigations in southern Italy on topics like misuse of public funds, organized crime, and corporate wrongdoing.

“In Southern European culture the perception is still that women shouldn’t wander around doing dangerous jobs,” Anesi said.

Journalist Cecilia Anesi speaking at the conference "(Un)Covered: Investigative Journalism For Europe" / Photo: Andreas Lamm, ECPMF
Journalist Cecilia Anesi speaking at the conference "(Un)Covered: Investigative Journalism For Europe" / Photo: Andreas Lamm, ECPMF

Prejudicial questions about women’s fitness for the role aside, the long hours, low pay, and danger associated with investigative journalism can make combining work and family life a challenge for some women in the profession.

“If you want to have a family at some point, investigative journalism is a hard career choice. Right now, I could not have kids, because I wouldn't have enough money to raise them.”

Knowing Your Worth

Pavla Holcova founded the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism, which investigates topics ranging from arms smuggling to organized crime.

“If I sometimes feel underestimated, it's by a ‘white man of a certain age,’ which is basically a nickname for those who are old school,” said Holcova. “They often make skeptical comments, insinuating we don’t know how to do our jobs properly and are not persistent enough.”

As a woman who also founded her own investigative journalism platform, van Haren can relate to the experience of being unfairly criticized by older, male colleagues, particularly those working for more established media companies.

“In the beginning, people from companies that had existed longer than mine always treated me like a little girl,” she said. “They would tell me, ‘you’re just a small organization, so you can’t do this or that,’ and I’d say ‘watch me!’”

The perception that women are underestimated by the media establishment is supported by the evidence. In the most recent comprehensive report studying this issue globally, the 2011 Global Report on the Status of Women in News Media by the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF), reported that 73 percent of the highest managerial positions in journalism are occupied by men.

While investigative journalism can be a dangerous profession and carries risks for all practitioners, sexualized threats and harassment both on and off line are an added concern for women.

Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting, a study conducted by the IWMF in 2018, found that 63 percent of women journalists were threatened and harassed online; 58 percent have been threatened or harassed in person; and 26 percent of them were physically attacked. The respondents often cited a gendered slant to the attacks.

Asked to give advice to young women wanting to enter the field of investigative journalism, the journalists said the key is for women in the profession to support each other and believe in themselves.

“Help each other instead of competing. Use the advantages you have,” said Sanne. “Don't try to be a man. Try to be yourself.”

Masha Durkalic, Jiri Dienstbier Journalism Fellow.
Masha Durkalic, Jiri Dienstbier Journalism Fellow.

Masha Durkalic is a journalist and feminist from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). In 2011 she began to focus her reporting on women’s and LGBTI rights. Durkalic is the editor of the first LGBT info portal in BiH, She is the author and editor of the publication Her Voice Echoes, a compilation of personal stories about women and investigative articles that explores the position of marginalized groups in BiH, and the co-creator, co-author and editor of the book #ZeneBiH, the first illustrated book on exceptional women throughout the country’s history.