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After Lucido exchange, it's time for female reporters to speak up

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

I was just months into my Detroit News career two decades ago when a high-level Macomb County prosecutor referred to a criminal case he was handling and made a joke to me about oral sex.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I was in my early 20s, new to covering courts and eager to prove myself at my first big city newspaper. I didn’t want to make a fuss. And I certainly didn’t want to alienate a source by telling him his joke was inappropriate.

So I did the only thing I thought I could. I laughed nervously and quickly changed the subject.

More than two-thirds of those graduating from college journalism and communications programs are women these days.

A lot has changed since that awkward exchange many years ago. I’m not the young, naive reporter I was then, so eager to prove myself. And in the age of the Me Too movement, it’s not OK to treat women inappropriately in any field, including journalism, and think you’ll get away with it. It wasn’t OK 20 years ago, either.

That uncomfortable joke resurfaced in my memory this week after a recent exchange between a young female reporter and a Michigan senator became national news.

Allison Donahue of the Michigan Avenue was working on a story last week when she approached Sen. Peter Lucido, a Macomb County Republican, to get a comment. Lucido was with a group of boys from De La Salle High School in Warren at the Capitol when he told Donahue, “you could have a lot of fun with these boys, or they could have a lot of fun with you.”

The exchange between Lucido and Donahue — Lucido later apologized and then said he’d been misquoted — has set off a long overdue conversation about women in the media and men in power. Words matter. “Joking” around about “having fun” with a group of young boys isn’t funny. It’s inappropriate and gross.

Women are a staple in newsrooms, covering every possible beat (though they continue to lag in leadership roles). And the majority of graduates coming out of journalism programs are women. According to the Poynter Institute, women comprise more than two-thirds of graduates with degrees in journalism or mass communications today.

But I’m not sure the world of power brokers has fully adjusted. Even as more women graduate with degrees in journalism, they’re often held to a different standard than their male colleagues. Women covering more hard news beats like government routinely face the challenging task of trying to infiltrate the “old boys network” (which is still alive and well in so many areas, even in 2020) while also dealing with the perception that women are supposed to be “nice.” They’re not supposed to write stories that make people squirm. Male reporters are supposed to be tough; women reporters are labeled differently if they write stories that challenge authorities.

After switching from the courts beat years ago, I covered one of Michigan’s largest municipalities. I wrote about the city council, interviewed department heads and frequently was in contact with the city manager. I interviewed some women but the majority of my sources were male (and white).

When I wrote a story that included a quote from a resident critical of a city service, the city manager sent a scathing memo to every department head, instructing them not to talk to me in the future. Apparently I should’ve only interviewed residents who had positive things to say about city services. Would he have sent the same memo if a male reporter had written that story? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Thank goodness the world is changing. The Me Too movement has given women in every field — including journalism — permission to speak up. We don’t have to hang out in the background anymore when men in power cross a line. We can and must speak up.

And I’m glad Allison Donahue spoke up, even though Lucido is now changing his story. Progress doesn’t happen if we’re more concerned about blending in and stirring the pot. I would’ve told the younger version of myself years ago. It’s time to make a fuss.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com