Student guest post: Why I’m worried about being a female reporter

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Camila Molina is a junior in the School of Media and Journalism on the reporting track. She has been a staff writer for The Daily Tar Heel’s city desk since May 2015. She is also the managing editor for Synapse, a longform digital magazine. She has written for Synapse since February 2015.

As a student journalist, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Thankfully, I’m making them as a student and not as a professional.

“Don’t fabricate,” “don’t take bribes” and “don’t get infatuated with sources” are very clear lessons my class in journalism ethics taught me. It’s for the sake of remaining objective and producing content for the best interest of the public. Great, thank you for those valuable lessons.

However, dealing with ethical decisions in the real world is not so black and white. I hate to admit it, but as a female journalist, I feel like I’m at an ethical disadvantage compared with my male counterparts. I don’t mean in the sense of equal opportunity employment, but in the way sources view me as a professional.

While working on a story for The Daily Tar Heel, the university paper, I asked a male source for his phone number and email address so I could contact him after the event. I ended up calling him a few days later from my cellphone, asking permission to use his quote in the news story. I identified him as an undocumented immigrant, so I called him out of courtesy.

I should’ve listened to my gut and called him from the Daily Tar Heel office. Since the day I called him, I received text messages from him asking me how I was doing. This is where I went wrong: I responded. Maybe I’m naïve, or too nice, or too caring — whatever — I responded because I knew the value in building a network of sources. The text messages I received from the source changed from greetings to flirtations (words and emojis included). Ugh. I stopped responding.

Do male reporters even worry about being too friendly that their actions might be misinterpreted?

What’s frustrating is I had the predisposition to question whether I should use my personal phone number to call the source. Before this incident, I’ve made efforts to smile less and to dress in neutral colors, especially if I’m speaking to male sources. When I was assigned to cover the opening of a new bar in downtown Chapel Hill for The Daily Tar Heel, I went to the extent of dragging my boyfriend with me (and I’m glad I did).

Part of my job as a journalist is to socialize with sources. I need to listen to them. Sometimes I need to ask them about their lives in general so they don’t feel like they’re being used for information. Yes, that’s ultimately my agenda, but I don’t have to show them that.

How do I balance being an approachable professional, yet not interested? More importantly, why should I have to worry about it?

If I have to worry about men getting the wrong impression because I’m engaged in a conversation, I want to know how to handle that. I’m sure I’ll make more mistakes as student because I’m still learning. I just don’t want to make this same kind of mistake when I’m employed — that’s just a risk I don’t want to take for my safety.