Feminist journalism is essential to public discourse. It is essential to political debate. And it absolutely essential to free and fair democracy. Explore more at Feminist Journalism is Essential to Democracy—Ms. magazine’s latest installment of Women & Democracy, presented in partnership with the International Women’s Media Foundation.
The Ms. Q&A: Elisa Lees Muñoz and Cindi Leive
Elisa Lees Muñoz is the executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, a role she has held since 2013. Lees Muñoz leads the organization to achieve its mission to support women journalists and develop their careers by providing training, tools and assistance. She is charged with growing the IWMF by expanding its programs into new geographies; introducing new initiatives; partnering with peer organizations; securing diverse organizational funding; and, driving communications and outreach to core constituents. Lees Muñoz oversees a team of more than 15 individuals dedicated to supporting gender-diverse journalists.
Cindi Leive is a journalist, media leader and co-founder of The Meteor, a collective of journalists, artists, media leaders and filmmakers committed to building a platform for modern feminist work. A cultural critic who appears frequently on TV and live events, she is the former editor-in-chief of both Glamour and Self magazines; the force behind barrier-breaking initiatives like Glamour Women of the Year (the country’s preeminent event showcasing women) and The Girl Project (supporting girls’ education); and the author or producer of numerous books including the 2018 New York Times bestseller Together We Rise, about the making of the Women’s March. Leive has interviewed heads of state, Hollywood and fashion’s biggest personalities, and iconic leaders from all walks of life. Her many awards and honors include recognition from the White House, the United Nations, and various media organizations. She is currently a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center.
Both Lees Muñoz and Leive have built their decades-long careers creating and uplifting reporting by and for women. In the conversation below, the two journalists discuss the risks women in the news face, the importance of women-centered and feminist reporting, and how we can best protect press freedom.
Cindi Leive: You and I have collaborated for many years on the Courage in Journalism Awards. From your perspective, how have the challenges women journalists face changed across those years?
Elisa Lees Muñoz: First, I think we have to consider how both the media and the development of press freedom safeguards have changed.
When the IWMF first began the Courage in Journalism Awards, journalists’ concerns were primarily extreme cases of press freedom threats, government-led attacks, and armed conflicts. So in these early days our focus was on governmental interference, laws impeding press freedom, and journalist imprisonments.
Then, the risks moved beyond government control to involve non-governmental entities—corrupt individuals and powerful cartels emerged as additional threats, particularly for investigative journalists.
And now, a new category of threats comes from the public: participants in rallies, demonstrators, and bystanders. Journalists are no longer seen as observers of events but as people who are taking a stand, even though they’re just doing their job. Having a president call the media the “enemy of the people” certainly didn’t help with that.
We also notice that attacks are no longer only directed at the profession but are identity-based. Governments, individuals and political interests continue to contribute to the escalating risks. I’d also be remiss not to mention that freelancers face heightened vulnerability in the absence of newsroom support.
Considering all these factors, the idea that specific areas of reporting used to be safer than others doesn’t hold up anymore. Every beat comes with its own danger, political implications and polarization. Protections once available, such as seeking exile, no longer offer a secure refuge from attacks that target not only the journalists themselves but also their families. So the dangers women and nonbinary journalists face are not only compounding but incremental.
Journalists are no longer seen as observers of events but as people who are taking a stand, even though they’re just doing their job. Having a president call the media the ‘enemy of the people’ certainly didn’t help with that.Elisa Lees Muñoz
Leive: As online abuse becomes a near-constant factor for women on the internet, how does this issue threaten feminist voices in the news?
Lees Muñoz: Journalists contend with a combined challenge of physical threats alongside pervasive online violence. As you know, marginalized communities—including women, journalists of color, and LGBTQI+ journalists—experience these attacks at a higher rate.
The horrific truth is more than 70 percent of women journalists have experienced online violence. Often this gets described as a mob attack—that’s just not true. This abuse isn’t spontaneous; it’s led by specific interests and often augmented by governments trying to capitalize on our society’s growing polarization and global misogyny.
The consequences of these digital assaults are huge. They frequently go beyond the online world and manifest in real-life spaces, with 20 percent of physical attacks originating from the internet. Regardless, these attacks take a heavy toll on psychological wellbeing. Our research indicates that a third of women journalists have thought about leaving their newsrooms because of online abuse. From there, we get self-censorship, which impacts the coverage we get and the subjects journalists feel safe to report on.
No matter how you look at it, feminist media should be thriving.Cindi Leive
Leive: The Meteor is inspired by Audre Lorde’s quote “going out like a f*cking meteor.” Taking a cue from that, what’s the bright, bold headline of this moment in time for women journalists?
Lees Muñoz: I love this question! What stands out to me in this moment is the common threads between our 2023 Courage in Journalism Awards recipients. Their message is clear: Despite the immense challenges they face—from the Iranian government to Mexican cartels to global conflicts in places like Ukraine—they stand firm. They refuse to yield or be silenced. They will not back down. No matter the challenges they face, their dedication to reporting remains unwavering.
One of our winners, María Teresa Montaño Delgado, captured this sentiment perfectly: “I continue because this is my vocation.” They have a flame that refuses to be extinguished because they believe that journalism matters – that their voices matter. They won’t let someone else tell their story.
I want to turn it to you, now. We are such fans of The Meteor at the IWMF, but we know that times are tough for feminist media. In recent years Bitch and The Lily closed—and just last week, Jezebel announced its closure. How are you growing and adapting in this media landscape?
Leive: Honestly, I’m so bummed to see these outlets close! I know that nothing lasts forever and that media comes and goes—that’s true across categories—but no matter how you look at it, feminist media should be thriving. You have millions of people (not just women!) who have been mobilized by the death of Roe v. Wade; women are voting in record numbers; everything from Barbie screenings to women’s volleyball tournaments are selling out. And yet our media landscape, which can sustain 852 different outlets all analyzing the same inside-the-Beltway remarks of the day, can’t keep even a count-on-one-hand number of media companies talking to this vast, powerful audience alive? That’s a huge loss for everyone!
But back to your question, sorry. The Meteor is adapting by not relying on digital media or advertising and instead building live events and podcasts, among other things. We also try to uplift and partner with other brands in our space, like @feminist (and we love Ms.!)—in other words, trying to resist the media-industry gospel that has always pitted us against each other. That’ll be really important as we go into this pivotal election year, and I’m here for it. Our United States of Abortion video series has already had a material effect on national politics (the first subject, Amanda Zurawski, became the lead plaintiff in the groundbreaking lawsuit against the state of Texas), and we’re ramping up in 2024, as the stakes get even higher.
Lees Muñoz: In many ways, both our careers have been built around uplifting women’s voices, particularly in the news media. Can you share how feminist values have shaped your career?
Leive: I was raised by a feminist mom—she was a biochemist, and the two magazines she subscribed to were Scientific American and Ms., only one of which I was interested in. And then when I first started working in media, I worked with a lot of really smart and inquisitive women, including the former editor of Glamour, Ruth Whitney. (A reporter once asked her if she was a feminist, and she said, “What’s the alternative?”) So I’m not sure that I’ve ever looked at media another way.
To me personally, one key feminist value is curiosity. That means listening, learning and evolving. I think hearing other people with empathy (whether they’re subjects of a story or people who want your organization to do better) is a hallmark of Working Like a Feminist. I don’t always nail it, but I try.
Another core feminist value is just the belief that you can’t understand the world if you’re not looking at it from the point of view of women and nonbinary people—i.e. more than half of the population. It’s one of the reasons I feel so passionately about the IWMF, which advocates for, funds and protects women journalists. You can’t practice journalism while ignoring half the people in the room.
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