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WMC Award Winners Assess Media Progress

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Last week's awards ceremony in New York City celebrated women making a difference in the media. Marianne Schnall asked award winners how they achieved personal success and what it would take to improve women's overall status.

Women's Media Center President Julie Burton set the stage for the 2012 Women's Media Awards November 13 by citing as context women's recent success at the polls. “Last week’s election was fantastic. And twenty women in the Senate is historic," she said, but went on to add that women want equal representation. "Same in media—only three percent of women have clout positions. So our work is to shine a light on the stories and bylines that we hear and read and see so that people understand we’re only seeing half the story."

Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media who accepted the first WMC Lifetime Achievement Award, emphasized the need for the kind of daily advocacy that the WMC was founded to provide. It "reminds us that media is just too important to leave to the people who are doing it," she said with a laugh. "I mean, there has to be someone outside advocating for the media consumers, advocating for the audience! Us, you know?" Mitchell, who is currently at work organizing the upcoming TEDxWomen conference and served as WMC's founding co-chair, said consumers need to be reminded "every day that it’s not power down anymore, it’s power up. And each and every one of us has that power and we need to use it.”

Sarah Hoye of CNN, who won the Carol Jenkins Emerging Journalist Award—named for WMC's founding president—echoed Mitchell's call for advocacy. Women are "so good at advocating for others and for other causes," she told me. "But when it comes to ourselves, we don't do it. So let's start championing ourselves."

Speaking of stories that need to be told, several award winners put the state of media in the United States into a global perspective. Martha Nelson, editorial director of Time Inc., received the WMC’s Going the Distance Award. Internationally, she said, "we certainly would like to see more ownership [for women]. When you get global, you’re starting to talk about not just a little change or a move up the ladder, you’re looking at a need that requires almost a complete social revolution in some countries." In the United States, she said, "our problems are good problems to have because we’re talking about more visibility, not just about actually having any voice at all.”

E! Investigates reporter Laura Ling and her sister Lisa Ling, host of Our America With Lisa Ling on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, received WMC’s Sisterhood is Powerful Award. Accepting the honor, they both spoke about the experience of Laura's imprisonment in North Korea while reporting on the trafficking of women and Lisa's unflagging efforts to achieve her release—ultimately achieved with the intervention of former President Bill Clinton, who introduced the two at the New York ceremony via video. Speaking to me, Laura Ling called for greater emphasis in the U.S. media on international news. There needs to be "more representation of women’s issues around the world," she said. "Women make up half our population but we don’t see that represented in the media, and there’s so many stories that need to be told.”

For the Lings, their shared interest in the wider world began early and helped them succeed as journalists, they told me. "The game changer in my life," said Lisa, "was the opportunity at a young age to travel. Being exposed to things that are happening in the world changed our lives, opened our minds and our eyes. And once you are exposed, you can’t turn it off and pretend it doesn’t exist.” Laura agreed.  “We grew up in a very non-diverse community, a very all-American community, and I think it was that passion to see what was going on outside of our neighborhood—the different world out there—that changed our perspective about the world and about ourselves.”

Martha Nelson spoke of travel in another sense when she reflected on her own career. "I had a father who told me the great thing about life is that you could always change," she said to me. "And so I never felt boxed in. I never felt like I had to continue to do what I was doing, so I took other leaps. I took a lot of risks. And I would say the advice that I would offer to anybody is to follow your passion and then take the high road. Be sure whatever you do, you can get up and look at yourself in the morning and be happy about it.”

CNN's Sarah Hoye offered this advice to aspiring journalists: “You just always have to dot your i's and cross your t’s, and if you believe it and if you work for it, you will get there. But you have to do the work—it doesn’t come overnight and there’s no easy road.”

The very first award winner of the evening was chosen not by the Women's Media Center staff and board but by WMC site visitors and subscribers, who were asked to choose among 19 bloggers nominated for the Women's Media Center Social Media Award. WMC co-founder Robin Morgan presented the award to Luvvie Ajayi for her humor blog AwesomelyLuvvie.com.

Morgan, who hosts Women's Media Center Live With Robin Morgan on radio, told me she loved presenting the social media award because it represented "the media of the future," where ownership can't be confined to a relatively small group of generally white men. “The news is where we get our information," Morgan said. "And if we are getting our information from only white men, when the vast majority of people on the planet are neither white nor male, there’s a problem here. You don’t have democracy. And if you don’t have democracy in the media, you don’t have the democracy in the state. It’s just that simple.”

Or as WMC co-founder Gloria Steinem put it, "We’re communal people and we need to hear each other’s stories. Otherwise we soon feel alone, wrong, crazy. . . . We need each other’s example and each other’s encouragement.”

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