Smith Essay: Women Journalists, Hard News, and Newsroom Diversity

Pete Smith, Mississippi State University

“‘Raising Unshirted Hell’: The Journalism of Norma Fields, State Capitol Correspondent for the Northeast (MS) Daily Journal” (June 2019) examines the career of the first woman to cover state politics for a Mississippi newspaper. Accordingly, the research sheds light on a brand of journalism and set of professional experiences that challenged the status quo in and around the Mississippi state capitol. Furthermore, the article demonstrates the vital role of local and state journalism to the democratic process. The story of Norma Fields’s journalism career adds to a growing body of literature in the areas of women’s history and journalism history—specifically the research that has recorded the careers of women journalists who covered “hard news” subjects.

In her daily news reports and weekly column (“The Political Arena”), Fields covered topics and stories that were deemed inappropriate for women journalists (e.g. political corruption, ethics reform) or too politically volatile (e.g. the Equal Rights Amendment) and did so in a distinctive voice and style that was antithetical to the expectations of American womanhood. Fields’s journalism often put her at odds with those in power—particularly men who resented her more as a woman than they did as a journalist. Politics and journalism, certainly the mix of both, have historically been areas of male privilege and power, so Fields’s presence at the Mississippi statehouse was perceived as a slap in the face to traditional gender roles. To aggravate matters, Fields thumbed her nose at the cherished ideal of the “southern lady,” which dictated that women of the region be submissive and respectful in their words and deeds. Called everything from an “old battle-ax” to “cold-hearted” by her detractors at the state capitol, Fields understood the root of their anxiety but refused to acknowledge it.

By extension, Fields exposed readers, through her news reports and weekly columns, to the evolving role of the woman journalist as state political correspondent. For many readers of the Journal, that experience may have marked their first exposure to a woman reporting “hard news.” Fields’s presence at the state capitol, and the quality of the work she did there, facilitated change on at least two other levels: her journalism prompted changes in state legislation, and her tenure as a political correspondent eased the way for the next generation of women to be more readily accepted—or at least tolerated.

A study of Norma Fields’s career, then, can facilitate a valuable discussion in media and journalism history and gender studies courses as to the vibrant history of women journalists—specifically their roles in covering “hard news” topics like politics during the mid-to-late twentieth century. Likewise, the research can inform students in political science classes about how state legislatures and other government bodies are covered by legitimate news sources and the role that women have played and are playing in that important task.

Suggested Activities

1. Identify women journalists who are members of state capitol press pools. Then, identify, analyze, and discuss the types of issues or stories that they have published.

Introduction: Norma Fields believed that consistent press coverage of local and state elected officials helped keep them honest and accountable to the people. “When the bulldog’s looking in on them, they behave,” she said. Accordingly, Fields reported on the most mundane of topics—including state ethics reform—and targeted information that many journalists may have overlooked or bypassed given their workloads and desire to follow “sexier” story leads. For example, she routinely checked with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office to see how much money lobbyists spent and where that money landed. (By state law, lobbyists were required to file expenditure reports with the state.)

While most of the academic research has focused on women journalists who have covered issues of national importance, Fields’s experiences demonstrate the necessity of having experienced female reporters covering our state leaders. For this exercise, instructors should ask students investigate the make-up of the capitol press pools in their home states (including the names of the newspapers that employ them). Use the following questions to lead a class discussion on issues of diversity, inclusion, and discrimination:

  • How many women are members of the state capitol press pool?
  • In general, how diverse is the state capitol press pool?
  • Based on an investigation of the newspapers that employ all members of the press pool, what types of stories/issues have the women journalists investigated and published (especially in relation to their male colleagues)?
  • Where are the stories of the women journalists located in the newspaper (in relation to their male colleagues)?
  • What change or progress, if any, has been made since women journalists of Fields’s generation have covered state politics and leaders?

2. As an extension of the above exercise, the instructor can initiate an oral history project in which the class is split into small groups and interviews the women journalists of specific state capitol press corps. The class also should record and transcribe their interviews and donate the transcript to the university or local library.

NOTE: If there aren’t enough women for the entire class to interview, then the instructor can expand the project to include people of color or members of the LGBTQ community. Or, the students may choose to interview women journalists who cover municipal bodies for local newspapers.

Introduction: This research project may not have been completed without two valuable oral histories that Norma Fields participated in before her 2010 death. Fields sat down with members of the North Mississippi Oral History Project in October 2005 to discuss her maternal and paternal family histories  and their roots in northeast Mississippi. In 2009, Fields agreed to an interview with Lawrence Strout, associate professor in the Department of Communication at Mississippi State University. Fields discussed in great detail her marriage, children, early career decisions, and her long tenure with the Mississippi state capitol press corps. Both transcripts were invaluable in documenting and analyzing Fields’s personal life and career, including her thoughts on the stories she covered, the issues that mattered to her, and the discrimination and other challenges she faced along the way. A class oral history project, then, can be an important learning exercise for journalism and/or political science students. The following questions may be a useful start to the interview portion of the project. Students should be prepared to adjust the questions to fit the interview subject’s experiences:

  • Why did you choose journalism as a career?
  • Discuss the early stages of your career, including the types of stories and issues you covered.
  • Discuss your experiences as a state capitol reporter, including how you came to that position and the challenges you have faced.
  • Describe a couple of your “biggest” stories while working on the capitol beat—or perhaps the one that you’re most proud of.
  • What advice do you have for women who have chosen journalism as a career?

Additional Readings

Beasley, Maurine H. Ruby A. Black: Eleanor Roosevelt, Puerto Rico, and Political Journalism in Washington. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.

Beasley, Maurine H. Women of the Washington Press: Politics, Prejudice, and Persistence. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2012.

Cairns, Kathleen A. Front-Page Women Journalists, 1920-1950. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Fahs, Alice. Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Harp, Dustin. “Where Are the Women? The Presence of Female Columnists in U.S. Opinion Pages.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 91, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 289-307.

Hess, Stephen. Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution Press, 2012.

Norris, John. Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism. New York: Viking, 2015.

Olson, Candi S. Carter. “‘We Are the Women of Utah’: The Utah Woman’s Press Club’s Framing Strategies in the Woman’s Exponent.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 95, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 213-34.

Severson, Pernilla. “The Politics of Women’s Digital Archives and Its Significance for the History of Journalism.” Digital Journalism 6, no. 9 (2018): 1222-1238.

Warneka, Brenda Kimsey, Carol Hughes, Lois McFarland, June P. Payne, Sheila Roe, and Pam Knight Stevenson (Eds.). Skirting Traditions: Arizona Women Writers and Journalists, 1912-2012. Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark, 2012.

Watts, Liz. “AP’s First Female Reporters.” Journalism History 39, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 15-28.

Wirth, Eileen M. From Society Page to Front Page: Nebraska in Journalism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

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