HERstory Lesson Opinions

HERstory Lesson: Nellie Bly

From Ten Days in a Mad-House to touring the world in high heels

A girlboss of her time, Nellie Bly — born Elizabeth Cochrane — was an American journalist who was famous for her investigative undercover work.

She was born in 1864 and went to school until the age of 15, but struggled to find work, even more than her brothers who were less educated than her.

In 1885, she wrote a response to an editor at the Pittsburgh Dispatch after they published an article titled “What Girls Are Good For” that criticized the presence of women in the workforce. In her response to the column, she argued for more opportunities for women in the public sphere. The editor was impressed by her writing, and this kick-started her career as a reporter. 

When she started working for the Dispatch, she began writing under the pseudonym Nellie Bly because it was considered inappropriate for women to write under their own name. So, it only made sense that all of the men in the newsroom came together to find her a “catchy” nom de plume, which turned out to be inspired by a racist form of entertainment.

Although Nellie Bly made the name a feminist reference today, it is actually the misspelled version of the minstrel song Nelly Bly by Stephen Foster. Minstrel songs were made specifically for minstrel shows, a racist form of theater that was prominent in the 19th century.

Despite bringing great reporting on the conditions of working women at the Dispatch, Bly’s editors confined her to writing on women’s issues. In a time where women were hired as reporters mainly for the “women pages,” Bly wanted to do investigative work.

To be less restricted, she moved to New York in 1886, but struggled to find work as a woman reporter. A year later, Bly stormed into the office of none other than Joseph Pulitzer and asked to report on immigrants in the United States. Although he refused her pitch, he challenged her to look into the Blackwell’s Island mental asylum for New York World.

Not only did Bly accept the challenge, she committed herself to that piece by faking mental illness to get herself admitted into the institution. During her time there, Bly investigated claims of abuse and neglect in the women’s unit. She also dropped her act and started acting “normal,” even asking to be let go, but to no avail. After ten days of trying to convince the staff that she was a reporter, the New York World had to come rescue her from the asylum.

Bly’s discoveries were published in a series of articles in the paper, followed by a book called Ten Days in a Mad-House. Not only did her investigative reporting lead to a grand jury investigation of the asylum and brought more funding for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections, it also became one of the most iconic pieces of undercover journalism. 

The ease with which she was able to trick doctors into thinking she was insane also ensured future examinations to be more thorough.

She continued to publish regular exposés on corruption in the legislature and jails, as well as continuing to advocate for the working class.

In 1889, she was inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days to beat fictional character Phileas Fogg’s record travel. Bly read the book and was inspired to beat Fogg’s record.

The New York World published daily updates of her journey, even running a contest where readers could guess how much time it would take her to travel the world. Bly travelled the world by train, boat and horse, wearing a full gown, heeled boots and corset, the traditional attire for women at the time.

She completed the tour in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, setting a new world record. It didn’t take long, however, for a businessman to take her glory and complete the challenge in 67 days.

Nellie Bly was a pioneer in her field as an investigative journalist and continues to be an inspiration for women today.

HERstory Lesson is a new column presenting all the “bad girls” in history, or the ultimate girlboss summit.


All news is subjective, and here’s why

A journalists’ role has always been to educate and inform the general public about events or issues that might affect their lives in an objective manner.

However, with the emergence of social media, many would think that their traditional role of gatekeeping would have disappeared. Right? Wrong.

Journalists will always be helping the public make sense of all the information that is out there, especially due to the exponential growth of the internet and the abundance of accessible information. However, I would argue that the news that we are currently consuming is highly filtered and the danger is that it is not as apparent.

The  concept of ‘manufactured consent’ is very important here. It is the idea of denying citizens access to other points of view by showing a partial side of a certain story — in other words, propaganda. Walter Lippmann in Journalism and Its Publics argues that citizens who are denied access to accurate facts are eventually going to create an environment where corruption, panic and disloyalty are present.

Often, when we hear or see the news on the radio or television, we come across these constructed stories produced by journalists who have specific points they want to bring across. According to Gasher et al, in Journalists as Content Producers, journalism as a profession operates within a specific environment with a set of specific ideals, storytelling conventions as well as varied audience expectations. As a result, journalists have to filter out information for various different reasons, whether it be time restrictions, what the producer has asked for or something that they did not think was important enough to include. Little subjective decisions like those are what contribute to the missing holes in news stories. In other words, many decisions go into producing news reports and a lot of filtering happens when it comes to producers deeming a story “newsworthy.” Every producer and journalist has their own set of skills and vision when it comes to their work, which means that a single story could be covered in various ways depending on their organization’s ideologies, values and needs.

However, according to Kovach and Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism, the gatekeeping role of journalists’ has shifted — I would instead argue that journalists today actually have more freedom to tell stories subjectively. Manipulation of the news that we consume is created throughout the journalistic process of finding the “truth” and accurately portraying that information to the consumer.

The whole journalistic process itself encourages the careful crafting of stories, no matter what kind of journalism we are talking about. And that is because it is a profession which requires journalists to operate within a specific environment, guided by certain expectations, ideals and conventions which need to be respected. All of these limitations brought upon journalists shape an even more restrictive story to the consumers.

It would therefore be nearly impossible to have news stories that “mirror” reality, because portraying reality would be including multiple sides of a story, which are experienced and viewed differently by everyone. A mirror, after all, shows us only what is placed in front of it, not more, not less. In a news story, the person holding the mirror would be the journalist. In this case, the journalist would have complete control over where to place the mirror and what exactly to include in the frame. It is safe to say that news is not gathered but rather curated, carefully selected and presented for public consumption.

Along with the rise of social media, an increasing chunk of the ‘audience’ now has the power of becoming content creators because of the abundance and ease of access of information available online. That, in turn, means that anyone can create and publish content online, claiming that it is ‘journalism.’ This promotes lower-quality news and the deskilling of journalists which renders them easy to replace. As a result, it makes the average journalist share the same skill set as anyone else.

In sum, subjectivity is always present in stories, no matter how blatant or subtle, because they are carefully crafted to “hook” readers and are heavily filtered by content producers in order to comply with their standards of “newsworthiness.”

But what measures can be taken in order to avoid bias and filtering of information in news stories? Unfortunately, as human beings, we are biased creatures by nature and journalistic practices and values are not expected to change anytime soon. However, allowing for a more inclusive environment in the newsroom with people of different opinions, coming from different religious and cultural backgrounds, could be a start. This would allow for a healthier flow of opinions, and the collective subjectivities would then help create some sort of large objective perspective from each news agency.


Graphic by @sundaeghost

Briefs News

World in brief: London Bridge attacks, climate strikes against Black Friday and investigation into Malta’s murdered journalist

A stabbing attack on the London Bridge took the life of two people, leaving three injured on Friday afternoon. Governmental officials have since referred to the stabbings as a terrorist act committed by 28-year-old Usman Khan. Khan was a known, convicted terrorist who was released last year from prison, only halfway through his 16-year sentence, reported the Independent. Videos show evidence of Khan, wearing a fake suicide bomb, tackled by the public before being fatally shot by the police. Both victims, identified as Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, were in their early twenties and were involved with Learning Together, an organization for prison rehabilitation.

Black Friday was kicked off with climate strikes and overconsumption protests taking place around the world. Protesters targeted Amazon in France, while a widespread “Black Friday Strike” from Los Angeles to New York was called by a group of young people, reported CBC. In Madrid, where the UN climate summit will be taking place from Dec. 2 to Dec. 13, a giant banner reading “Consumerism = climate crisis” was hung by Geenpeace. The various protests mainly accused Black Friday of promoting overconsumption, accelerating the environmental crisis. Canadians were expected to spend more than $29 billion this year during the sales, according to Finder statistics.

Malta’s Prime Minister announced his plan to step down amid potential involvement in the 2017 car bomb killing of a journalist. Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed while she was in the middle of investigating corruption among the country’s political and business elite, as reported by The Guardian. On Saturday, the murder inquiry charged a businessman in the case with alleged ties to the government. It fueled the ongoing national protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat over his mishandling of the case for the past two years. Muscat said he will resign in the upcoming month and called for the process of choosing a new leader by Jan. 12, 2020.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


Drowning in distress and trying to stay afloat

One student’s contemplation on juggling school, work and the possibility of unpaid internships

Picture it: you’re sitting in class, minding your business, waiting for your professor to walk in and begin the lesson. Maybe you’re scrolling through Instagram, maybe you’re cramming for your test. And all the while, you hear your fellow classmates discuss their internships. You panic, mid-scroll, realizing you will eventually have to take on an internship as well in order to graduate.

This is almost the exact reaction I had. As students, our main goal after we get our degree is to find a job. But sometimes, before that, we have to get an internship. In my journalism program, we have had multiple guest lecturers—both current and past students—discuss their experience in the program, and inevitably they mention their internships. These internships, like most, were unpaid. Despite their enthusiastic discussion of internships, I noticed none of these guest lecturers mentioned handling a part-time job as well.

I’ve had the same part-time job for five years now, and it has been grand. I’ve gotten a few raises over the years and, despite some bad days, I like my job. At the end of the day, it keeps me afloat. It allows me to pay my bills, put food in my stomach and, sometimes, treat myself to a night out with friends or new clothes. But I can’t imagine having to give up my part-time job in order to take on an unpaid internship. It would make it hard to afford anything at all.

How am I supposed to deal with going to school during the day, commuting home to do homework, then attending my part-time job for more than eight hours several times a week? For my own mental health, I’d also like to somehow manage a social life amidst all this. And then, on top of all that, I have to take on an internship that is unpaid, likely working the same number of hours as a full-time paid employee. Where am I supposed to squeeze that into my packed schedule?

Listen, I understand that it’s part of student life. And I, for one, am well aware of my privilege and how easy I have it. I still live at home with my mom. I have a car. I work a part-time job that’s close to home. I know there are lots of other students who have it a lot harder; those who work full-time jobs to pay for school and rent and food and sometimes even the needs of their relatives or children.

But that’s precisely my point. How am I, or anyone else who encounters the hurdles of student life, supposed to deal with the additional burden of an unpaid internship that takes up our time and effort without compensation?

I’m all for internships. The idea that I could work hands-on in my desired field and get a real-life, real-time work experience sounds awesome. It could be fun, exciting and even lead to a real job. But my concern is how time and money fit into all of this; two things that make the world go round. The two things that keep us afloat in life.

Graphic by @spooky_soda


Student Life

The journey of an award-winning photojournalist

Concordia University invited Barbara Davidson to share insights about her life and career

In the words of renowned war photographer Robert Capa: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, then you’re just not close enough.” One thing is certain: Barbara Davidson has gotten close enough to produce emotional photos that evoke empathy. “The most important thing my upbringing taught me is empathy,” Davidson said. “It’s something that one really has to possess in order to be a really good photojournalist or good journalist.”

On Sept. 14, Concordia University invited Davidson to a homecoming keynote panel at the DB Clarke Theatre. Since graduating from Concordia with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts 27 years ago, Davidson has won three Pulitzer prizes, which is the most prestigious award for journalists. Davidson has also earned a national Emmy Award and was twice named newspaper photographer of the year by Pictures of the Year International. “I usually don’t talk about myself in these presentations. I’m usually far more interested in the people that I document,” she said. “Since it’s Montreal and I’m coming home, I thought that it would be nice to give people a perspective of how I ended up living in the United States and covering all the stories that I covered.”

Davidson discussed elements of her career and life as an award-winning photojournalist, and how she paved her way to success with nothing but hard work and perseverance. She was raised by her Irish mother, who worked part-time while taking care of seven children. “My upbringing had a profound influence on the journalist I became,” she said. “It really taught me what it’s like to go without, to live a life that was difficult. It taught me about the human condition from first-hand experience.”

Barbara Davidson speaking at the homecoming keynote panel at Concordia University. Photo by Kirubel Mehari

According to Davidson, it was her grandfather, who took pictures of her family, who inspired her passion for photography. “He was the original photographer of the family,” she said. “He had an incredible passion for taking pictures.” When Davidson’s parents left Ireland for Canada in search of a better life, they packed bundles of family photos into their suitcases. “We had this drawer that was full of all these family photos, and I loved them so much,” she said. “Photography really meant something in my family. It was a really special thing.”

Davidson was 15 when she first decided she wanted to become a photographer. “I didn’t really know that I would be this kind of photographer. I didn’t know that my dream would end up here on the front page of the Los Angeles Times,” she said.

Davidson began her career working for one of Concordia’s student newspapers, The Link. “I learned a lot about my craft here at Concordia University, working for the student newspaper. It was incredibly important for me,” she said. “I spent more time on that newspaper than I ever did in class.”

Since then, she has travelled around the world, covering different crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Gaza, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the United States. She documented the catastrophe and repercussions of hurricane Katrina and was recently in Texas covering the devastation of hurricane Harvey for the New York Times. “I had been trained as a Red Cross worker before I became a journalist, so I was and still am always interested in the most vulnerable people,” she said.

Davidson has also done a lot of work abroad. “It was like parachute journalism, where I would be dispatched to Iraq and hit the ground and figure out how to navigate,” she said. During the presentation, Davidson showed a video compilation of some of her photos taken abroad. The rawness of the photos demonstrated how close Davidson managed to get to the lives of thousands of different people all around the world. These pictures said more than a thousand words—they showed the strong emotions people experienced in their most vulnerable life situations.

Ten-year-old Erica Miranda was shot three times in the back, knee and hip March 2 while playing basketball outside her home in Compton. A young man had walked up to the crowded street corner and started firing a handgun in what police believe was a gang assault. A 17-year-old relative of her stepfather and a 45-year-old family friend, both men, were also shot three times and survived. At Long Beach Memorial Medical Center: Miller Children¹s Hospital, Erica waits for her bandage to be changed.

Davidson made it clear that her career did not come easily. It has taken her a long time to get to this point, and she discussed how rejection was part of her journey. “I [used] my rejection to fuel my desire to make it because this craft of photojournalism is so competitive and it’s so difficult so that rejection could have made me fall into a corner and have me cry a lot—but it just made me angry and it made me want it even more,” she said. “It made me say, ‘I’ll show you.’”

Davidson also explained that it isn’t necessary to travel overseas to document death and destruction—it can happen right in your backyard. When Davidson moved to Los Angeles, she said she noticed that many people were desensitized to violence. In nearby low-income neighbourhoods, people were experiencing a high level of gang violence. She decided it was her time to tell a substantive story about the victims of gang violence.

As part of her talk, she showed a short film which introduced the audience to the families she ended up spending a lot of time with for this project. “I always paid attention to people caught in the crossfire, the innocent victims who really had nothing to do with conflict but were caught in it,” Davidson said. When she initially approached her editors at the Los Angeles Times with her story idea, the newspaper rejected it. Davidson ended up working on the story for about six months on her own before she was given the green light to have her work published in the newspaper.

Davidson told the audience loud and clear: “You can study to be a journalist, which is a wonderful thing, but if you don’t have it inside of you to really be a journalist, you’re not going to be a journalist. It’s something a lot more than just learning trade—it’s a way of life. It’s not just a job for me.”

Main photo by Barbara Davidson in her feature on gang violence for the Los Angeles Times

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