Women journalists push for a voice in Latin American media

The nonprofit Chicas Poderosas (Powerful Girls) aims to create an atmosphere of possibility for women in newsrooms across Latin America as an essential way to 'change the conversation' and expand focus on such stories as femicide and poverty. 

Ricardo Mazalan/AP
A supporter cheers during a campaign inauguration to present congressional candidates from the political party formed by former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on Jan. 27 in Bogotá, Colombia. The Bogotá-based El Poder de Elegir (Power to Choose) partnered with media technology firm Meedan to develop ways to fact-check political messages being exchanged via WhatsApp ahead of Colombia's May election. The group is one of 30 being supported by nonprofit Chicas Poderosas (Powerful Girls).

Traveling around Latin America to show journalists how to hone their digital skills, Mariana Santos quickly realized that even though more women were filling column inches and producing content, the region's newsrooms were still overwhelmingly led by men.

In a push to give women a better chance to set the agenda, her Chicas Poderosas (Powerful Girls) group is now helping Latin American women develop their own independent media companies.

"We really need more women who are able to be leaders and are not afraid," said Ms. Santos, formerly a digital designer for Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"Women do not get given good stories. They are told they got that good story because they went to sleep with a guy," she said by telephone from São Paulo in Brazil.

The nonprofit Chicas Poderosas has trained about 5,000 women from Mexico to Argentina in interactive storytelling, investigative reporting, and leadership skills, to help bolster their positions in the media where women are starkly absent from senior roles.

Now 30 journalists, designers, photographers, and developers on the group's four-month accelerator scheme, New Ventures Lab, are working out how to develop, run, and eventually monetize their own media businesses, most with a strong social slant.

One project runs a media website for Ecuador's LGBT community, while another is developing an arts and entertainment site in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. A group in Manaus, Brazil, is fact-checking news and information in the country's Amazon region.

"This is very innovative – what we're trying to do is create a disruptive process to improve the media in Latin America," said Lia Valero, who took part in the lab run at Google's offices in São Paulo.

Ms. Valero is involved with El Poder de Elegir (Power to Choose), a group based in Bogotá, Colombia, that is working with media technology firm Meedan to develop ways to fact-check political messages being exchanged via WhatsApp ahead of Colombia's May election.

The project wants WhatsApp users to forward messages with political content to Valero's team who will try to verify them using a pool of journalists around the country.

They plan to respond with an image indicating whether the information is accurate or not, and post the results online.

Valero hopes the service will help voters make informed decisions and flag trends other journalists could pick up. It could also be deployed in upcoming elections in Brazil and Mexico, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Faced with a male-dominated media culture, Colombian women often struggle to climb the career ladder, said Valero, noting a prominent journalist's recent decision to share how she was raped by a high-profile man she did not identify for fear of reprisal.

Bolstering women in Latin America's media could help push under-reported stories to the front page, including the high levels of femicide and poverty plaguing women across the region, said Chicas Poderosas' co-director Vicki Hammarstedt.

"We believe women having leadership positions will actually change the conversation, but also provide women with the opportunity to have a direct impact on that conversation," said Ms. Hammarstedt, who is also director of the University of California Berkeley Advanced Media Institute.

Forty-three percent of reporters and presenters in Latin America in 2015 were women, up from just 28 percent in 2000, according to the Global Media Monitoring Project run by the World Association for Christian Communication.

But men hold most senior posts while their female colleagues are often marginalized and paid less, an imbalance that affects how the media portrays women, said Aimée Vega Montiel, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

In Mexico, "the world of the media in terms of structure is a male world," said Ms. Vega, who is also chair of UNESCO's Global Alliance on Media and Gender.

The "Chicas" behind Peru's Malquerida Dice (The Unbeloved Says) website aim to bust the notion that gender-focused writing only tackles issues like violence, and bring an eclectic mix of features, reviews, and advice to its 1,000 monthly readers.

"Our main idea was to create a safe space for women to write and publish because we feel we are super underrepresented," said Ana Muñoz Padrós, one of Malquerida's founders.

"Fifty percent of the creativity and imagination in the world is lost when women are not writing and if we're kept out of newsrooms," she added.

Co-founder Lucia Chuquillanqui, who grew up in a sprawling, working-class neighborhood of Lima, Peru, said Malquerida wants to hire more women with a similar working-class background writing for the site.

"Where you're from and what you are adds something to the story," she said. "Most of the world has the same experience as I had in San Juan de Lurigancho ... the same sense of violence, poverty, lack of good education – so I think that's a different perspective to tell."

Finding ways to help the "Chicas" make their ideas financially sustainable is one of the biggest challenges for the New Ventures Lab. The group introduces them to media professionals and sets them up with local mentors.

"Most times, women in Latin America ... are afraid to step forward," said Santos, who is from Portugal. "They are always asking for permission, always saying they are sorry for being successful."

"The goal here is to spread the feeling of yes, we can do things – so let's plan, let's strategize, let's articulate, and get there," she added.

This story was reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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