Let's Talk: Personal Boundaries, Safety & Women in Journalism


Sarah Stillman: So, I thought it might be nice to start with what draws you to journalism? What are the things that make you feel most enlivened, or the things that feel most rewarding about the job?

May Jeong: Learning new things, meeting new people. There's a real sense of contributing to this larger thing that's happening, a bigger, meta-story. And I'm kind of doing my part. And all the other reporters are doing their part. I like that sense of community that journalism engenders. And also, I'm sure you feel this way too, but it's such an incredible privilege, actually, what we do. It's the greatest excuse to just show up at someone's house and say, "Hi, I'm a reporter, can I talk to you?"

And I'm always so shocked when they say, "Sure, come on in." And then being witness to the most intimate details of people's lives. I still get such a high out of it. It's a real rush. And that's kind of the fun part that keeps me doing the job, which is really unglamorous about 90% of the time, and doesn't pay very well.

I do it because it's really fun. I think I'm good at it. There’s a real sense that you're contributing something, you're adding value to a system that needs a lot of critiquing.

Sarah Stillman: You mentioned the thrill of getting to show up at people's doors, and getting to talk to people you don't know. That’s one of the complicated dances we wanted to address in this film: how you approach that in scenarios where that may sometimes end up leading to situations where people interpret your intentions differently than you intend them, or where boundary crossings happen-

May Jeong: Yes.

Sarah Stillman: So, to the extent that you're comfortable, I would love it if you might be willing to share some stories, or experiences, or anecdotes about boundary crossings, however you see them.

May Jeong: It happens on a daily basis. I have a small group of other young female, mostly freelance journalists with the group chat title Babysitter's Club. And we call it that because when we were babysitting we felt like labor conditions were better. You get paid on time. People drive you home after your shift. But also because there's so much emotional labor that comes with journalism, especially when you're a woman.

Men, typically older men because that’s the world we live in, where the majority of my sources will be older men, they sometimes see me as this writer shaped thing, so they might speak more freely than they would to someone who looks like a very prototypical foreign correspondent.

But, as a result of that, you do have to do this complicated dance. And it's everything from ... I had drinks with a source recently, and you always start with coffee, but then it just so happens you end up having drinks with someone pretty late in the evening. And you want to make sure that they know that you're on the clock, you're working.

And so as we're sitting down to order drinks I might casually ask, "What are your evening plans?" To indicate that I have my own plans, which don't include him. And, so, there are all these different strategies for survival as a young, female reporter. And it's annoying that we have to do that, but at this point, I've kind of embraced ... Embraced is a strong word, but accepted it as the tax I pay for wanting to be a woman out in the world.

And, the thing that has resonated a lot among our friends after the death of our friend Kim Wall, the Swedish reporter who went missing and then murdered while she was reporting, is that these are all concerns that we are aware of and we talked about, and joked about, and strategized over. But I kind of feel like it, it took a disembodied torso washing ashore for us to come out in public and say that, hey this is a problem.

And it's just that this is the most dramatic manifestation of the fears and the concerns, and the anxieties that we confront on a daily basis.

Sarah Stillman: That’s so, so, powerfully put. And I think that's exactly what we're hoping to do here is to be part of that conversation. I'm wondering if you could talk about the freelance dimension of it, because you mentioned that earlier, that there's ways in which your being a freelancer informs some of these more complicated gender dynamics, and the sense of safety you may or may not have going into a scenario.

May Jeong: Yeah, the good part is that you have total autonomy. And the freedom can be quite intoxicating. You can really just go out and, carve out whatever corner of the world you want to spend time in and then write a story about it. And that process is, on a good day, totally exhilarating. And on a bad day, it does weigh on you. This thought that you're beholden to no one, which also means, Kim's example is actually quite perfect, where she had this story that she had been, you know, workshopping with her friends, and also I'd first heard about it as a small nugget of an idea that she had developed over the course of many months.

And that is part of the process. And I understand that you are selling a product. And once that product isn't completed, no one's going to buy it. I understand that bargain, or process, rather. But if you're a staffer, throughout that whole process of coming up with a story idea, brainstorming, doing interviews, you're being paid. And more importantly, you're insured. Someone is accountable for you.

I really don't have an answer to this problem because it's something that I myself am still struggling with. Like, what is the cost of doing business. Most of the time it's a cost that I'm willing to pay. But occasionally, when something like this happens, with Kim, you wonder, is this the beginning? Will I lose more friends?

It's something that I'm struggling with.

Sarah Stillman: Yeah. I think it's so hard, because it's the worst nightmare that so many of us carry with us all the time when we're experiencing those lower grade things that happen, as you mentioned, on a daily level.

May Jeong: Absolutely.

Sarah Stillman: I'm wondering if you can share more about ... I love this idea of the Babysitter's Club. What are some of the kinds of things that have come up? You've given some really strong examples. I'm wondering if there are other examples that we should have in our picture of what this type of harassment or problems look like.

May Jeong: We have this Kim Wall memorial fund that we have raised over $100,000 for, and that money will be given out to a young female reporter doing work in Kim's spirit. But we're also thinking about it in terms of, when Jim Foley was killed, the direct consequence of something like that happening in my life is that hostile environment training courses became a thing.

And now I don't feel bad about asking the outlets I write for to insure me. Those are two very, very practical changes that I've experienced. And now we're trying to answer that question with Kim. What will her equivalent be? And something that we've discussed a lot is that in these hostile environment training courses, which are mostly excellent, they often teach you in these anti-rape workshops how to say no. And the thing that you're taught is that you're supposed to with a stentorian voice, say no. And then do the hand gesture. Which is great. But most of life happens in the gray area, where you can't really do that, because maybe the person who is, you know, making a move on you is a high ranking government official, who has a say over whether you can be in the country or not. Or gain access to a certain military unit or not.

And so, I think it's actually more useful to strategize ways in which you can deal with the day to day aggressions that you face as a female reporter. This is really getting into the minutiae of things, but maybe I'll come up with a fake husband. Or, usually, I have this ring that I wear that I bought from Forever 21. Or when I'm going into a particularly dicey area, I might do Find my Friend so my friends know where I am exactly. All the technological advances are super useful for just making sure that ... It's a macabre thought, but I do think about if something were to happen to me, I want it to be easy for other people to track me down, to figure out where I was last.

And so, those things are useful. And then just talking about it. Making it okay for a woman to come out and say, "Yes, this is a, an issue that I struggle with. And I think you do too." And then getting that dialogue going is super useful.

Sarah Stillman:  Yeah, this is great. You took us in exactly the direction I really want to go in, that we really want to center this in, which is what are some best practices and what are some tools that people can use and think about. I'm wondering if other advice that you would give to young journalists? Or even to your younger self? Things that you wish you knew when you were starting out that you have learned?

May Jeong: That's a good question. When I first started out I was so embarrassed by how young I was. So I would often just lie and round it up or whatever. There was a lot of insecurities that I'd internalized, which then came out in ways where I felt like I had to overcompensate. And this is something that I've talked about with other female reporters.

This is switching back to war reporting but if I'm going into an area that is precarious and I'm with other male photographers or reporters, I will never be the first person to say, "Guys, I don't feel okay about this." Because I already know how they think, and I don't want to confirm their existing biases.

But then, at which point, what are you exactly trying to prove? So those moments are kind of sad, when I realize that sexism has been this incredible force that has shaped the way I interact with the world. And now that I've realized that, I don't capitulate to as much. But, when I was younger, I just didn't have the wherewithal to realize that. And I would just try to be more manly than the male reporter, which is just totally absurd.

Sarah Stillman: That actually brings me to one of the things we also wanted to talk about, was thinking about this as a profession. What can journalism as a profession do? Because it does feel like so often the burden falls on you as an individual in the scenario, like the one you just described. So, I'm wondering what you think about how our field should be thinking about this. And also how men who are part of our field should be thinking about, how do we bring men into this conversation? Where do they fit?

May Jeong: So, the Sitters, the group that I mentioned, we have this thing now, because I see men who totally don't get it, and then men who want to be allies. And even men who want to be allies sometimes don't understand because it's not their lived experience. So, one of us came up with this great idea that we're all adopting, where, for certain men that we care deeply about, and who we think are salvageable, we will keep a running list throughout the year of all the ways in which they are not being an ally.

And then on their birthdays we'll gift it to them, and the idea is that if we didn't love you we wouldn't be doing this. But, because we think that you can improve upon yourself, this is a gift, our gift to you.

Sarah Stillman: And what are some of the top things that a guy might do that don’t show solidarity and might show up on that list.

May Jeong: There are so many good ones. It's almost like people only have room for one or the other. And so, if they want to be a good feminist then they totally forget about, for example, race relations. So reminding them that those are twin helixes. And it's not like you do one or the other. You have to do both.

And then understanding power dynamics. So, things like, if you're an older man, and you're the source and I'm the reporter, be aware that I am working right now. And, to a certain extent my job is to charm you to get access. So don't conflate that with something else. And then, don't ask me out for drinks on a Friday, pretty late. When I downgrade that to coffee, understand where that's coming from.

And then also, I guess, from male editors' perspectives, the fact that women face particular challenges should not be a reason not to give women opportunities. And not letting the reality that women face particular challenges be the reason to negate them of anything. Those are important things.

Sarah Stillman: Yeah, that's a really good point. I have heard editor conversations about, “we shouldn't send so-and-so to that environment, because it wouldn't be safe for her."

May Jeong: You’re penalizing her gender? Yeah.

Sarah Stillman: Are there other tools that you had wanted to talk about, or other things that I haven't asked that feel important to you that you want to share?

May Jeong: Just how common these issues are. I mean, the conversations that arose after Kim disappeared really made me understand how little people understand how journalism works. People were asking questions like, couldn't she have done the interview over the phone? And that, to me, portrays a total misunderstanding of the kind of journalism she practices, where, that we practice, where we spend weeks, months, definitely years building up trust with sources to gain access to their lives. To tell their stories.

And that's exactly what she was doing. It's not something she could have just called in. So that's something that has really stayed with me. And then the other is the inherent sexism in the way that her disappearance was being discussed. People were saying, why was she there alone? Why so late? What was she wearing? Really, like, otherwise sane people were asking me these questions. And without realizing that that is a version of victim blaming.

So that really shocked me. I was in Copenhagen after this happened, and I went to give a witness testimony to the police, a character reference of what kind of a person is Kim. And at some point the police officer asked me if Kim was flirty. And I had to ask back, in what way was this question relevant to the case. And then at the point the officer said, "Well, to be honest, maybe it's not that relevant."

But those little moments have taught me a lot about the, the grand assumptions that people draw.

Sarah Stillman: Has this changed how you think about ... Just that act, that fundamental act of trust that it requires of a female journalist to show up at someone's house ... Or, to do our work we need to make those choices, and yet it feels so fraught and painful in this context. I'm wondering if you can reflect on that, where you're at on that question? How to handle that fear, or whatever that feeling is for you.

 May Jeong: It is so scary to think about, what Kim would have gone through. Like, her final ... I can't even ... Sorry. It's really, really scary... And I think the reason why I'm struggling with this is because she is the most living, most alive, living person I knew. And so, to think of her in any other state is just super jarring. I also think about the kind of person she was, and how she would not want the end result of this happening to her to be her friends withdrawing from the things that they love to do the most. I think she would want us to be out there, doing what we're doing, and so, if only for her, I have to just keep doing it.

Sarah Stillman: What could you recommend to people ... Women journalists making those choices in their heads. Is there anything you wish you could have going through women's minds when they're making those choices?

May Jeong: Yeah, there's a book that Kim and I talked about called "King Kong Theory." It's one of those books that gets passed around from woman to woman. And that book really changed how I think about sexual violence. For a very long time, when people asked me, what is your primary fear, I would answer rape. And then I realize that that's actually just an extension of this patriarchal thinking where a woman's cleanliness or chastity is super important, so then if you're raped you're marred, therefore unworthy of life or whatever.

But this book, "King Kong Theory," teaches you that that's not the case. And so as I said earlier, now when I think about the potentials of violence, sexual or otherwise, I just think about it as a tax that I'm paying for being a woman wanting to be out in the world.

Sarah Stillman: Yeah, and brought up being a woman of color and navigating these things. Do you think there's anything that feels ... Anything you want to share about that? You mentioned that being a forgotten part of the twin helix?

May Jeong: Just the fact that I was at this war correspondent thing in France just over the weekend. And it's France, so there's that. But I was the only woman of color there. And when I even think about other women who are operating in this space, there aren't that many.

Especially if you're gonna go into front line reporting, there's nobody, really. The fact that I can sit here and name names means that structurally, the industry is not built in a way that facilitates and encourages young women of color to consider things like freelance reporting from abroad. Just being mindful of that, and thinking about ways in which we can change that.

If I still get asked to represent women of color, to explain their challenges it means that it's not representative. There should be more people that look like me. But I'm the only one right now. This is a problem.

Sarah Stillman: Yes. Well, this has all been very, very helpful and informative. Thank you for sharing, especially, I know that this is a really, really tough day, and I know you're going on to the memorial service. So, thank you for making the time to have this conversation.

May Jeong: Of course.