Their So-Called Journalism, or What I Saw at the Women’s Mags

Funny how women's magazines have women on the front cover yet...

I’ve been needing to get this out in the open since the excellent Science Online 2012 session that Maryn McKenna and Elizabeth Devita-Raeburn organized, on writing about science for women’s magazines.

A few years back, I went to Borneo to report on efforts to save the rainforest there, which people are hacking and burning into oblivion in the mad quest to grow oil palm trees. In the process, they’re obliterating wildlife—including the orangutan, which is sliding toward extinction. Palm oil is ubiquitous in American life. It’s in all sorts of processed foods—Oreos, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Ritz crackers, margarine—as well as soaps, make-up, and many other beauty products.

One destination on my Borneo trip was an orangutan sanctuary run by an incredible Danish woman, who was passionate and unflappable and very photogenic. Maybe, I thought, I could interest a women’s magazine in a short profile of this woman, as a way to inform readers about the palm oil problem—which, despite sporadic publicity over the years, very few people seem to know about or understand. So I contacted a friend of a friend, a smart and lovely editor at a high-profile women’s magazine that from time to time runs articles about strong women doing worthwhile work. Her reply was quick, honest, and upsetting: The magazine couldn’t tackle the palm oil issue head on, because half its advertisers were beauty companies guilty of destroying the very same forests my Danish woman was trying to save.

Collectively, women’s magazines—by which I mean the whole field, from fashion titles like Vogue and Elle to health publications like Self and Women’s Health to the more general sex-and-diet-tips mags like Glamour or Cosmopolitan (does that even still exist?)—reach millions upon millions of readers each month. So the lack of willingness to cover globally important topics is dismaying. It’s a colossal missed opportunity. That’s why I was heartened to hear some success tales of writing about science for women’s magazines, at the Science online session. Maryn and Elizabeth write frequently for women’s mags and had largely positive experiences to share. I know enough about Maryn to know that she’s a serious, sharp, ethical reporter. (I’m not familiar with Elizabeth’s work, but I assume the same is true.) So clearly there’s some solid journalism getting out there via women’s mags.

But there are also some serious institutional problems, and these can lead to 1) lack of coverage of important topics, 2) less-than-completely-truthful coverage of important topics, and 3) complete and utter bullshit coverage of important topics. My experiences working for women’s mags have been incredibly frustrating and disheartening—and I’ve long wanted to share them publicly but haven’t, for fear of alienating potential clients. The absurdity of this is a testament to the tough economics of freelancing. Few experiences are so bad that we won’t accept a lucrative repeat assignment when it’s dangled in front of us. But as I started thinking back on some of my horror tales, spurred by the Science Online session, I realized I no longer give a shit. I feel like this stuff needs to air out.

A couple of years ago, with the economy tanking and magazine budgets going the way of orangutans, an editor at a women’s magazine called me with an assignment. I’d already sworn off these mags forever after my last debacle but, as I was in no position to turn down $5,000 or whatever it was, I agreed. Anyway, this editor insisted that this was to be a serious science story (albeit written in the publication’s from-one-girlfriend-to-another voice), for which I should conduct many interviews and extensively scan the literature. So I did.

It soon became clear that the editor had had a specific thesis in mind from the start, one that wasn’t borne out by the research. Then one day I got an email saying the story was going to press that day, and could I please give it one last read to make sure it was okay. I was confused, as I hadn’t been contacted by any fact-checkers. But upon reading it, I noticed a few instances in which scientists’ quotes had been altered. The points they made were roughly the same, but the words simply weren’t theirs.

That’s not okay in serious journalism. When I asked the editor, she said the quotes had been tweaked for clarity, and that I shouldn’t worry—that a fact-checker would read the quotes back to the scientists, and if the scientists weren’t happy with the way they sounded, they could change their wording. Setting aside the ethics of this, I felt concerned for my own reputation. If I interviewed you, and then someone read you back your supposed quote, you would likely recognize immediately that the words weren’t yours. And your immediate thought would be that I misquoted you, and am therefore a shoddy journalist. And you would rightfully decide not to speak to me again, and possibly tell your colleagues to do the same. As a freelance journalist, my reputation for professional integrity is paramount; take it away, and I’m just some girl with a laptop who likes to ask questions.

The editor and I had an email argument, I left her a voicemail, she never replied, and that was that; in the end, I think we just stopped communicating. I never saw the final version of the story and I tried to move on with other work and forget about it. A few months later, after the check came, I saw the magazine on the newsstand. I picked it up, saw my article in the table of contents, and put it back without reading it. I have no idea of the editor worked in her own spurious thesis, or what the researchers “said” in their quotes.

This was only the last of a string of bad scenes, though. I was told multiple times by editors at another women’s mag to feed a source a quote—as in, “Can you call this source back and see if they’ll make this specific point in these exact words?” These were stories about health, in a magazine women turn to for actual, truthful, information. (I refused.)

Years ago, another women’s mag so badly mangled a story I’d done for them on young breast cancer survivors that one of the interviewees called me in tears. I hadn’t yet seen the printed article, which had been cut down—without my knowledge—from a feature of several thousand words to a quarter page of little more than a “charticle,” featuring four of the eight women I’d profiled, with nothing other than a thumbnail photo, a single quote, and their name, age, and how they’d learned of their illness.

And yet, the magazine had even bungled that. The tearful woman calling me was devastated because the magazine had completely altered the facts about how she’d discovered a lump in her breast.

I dialed my editor in despair, and she blamed it on the fact-checker.

This same story had begun with instructions to find a dozen breast cancer survivors under 35 who might be good candidates to profile, from which the editors would select the ones they wanted. Presumably, I thought, they’d select the women with the most interesting or relatable stories. After I sent the list to my editor, she told me to go back and ask each woman to send a photo. Like, a headshot. Because, I don’t know, stories about unattractive cancer survivors don’t sell?

I could go on, but remembering all this has made me need some bourbon. I’ll just mention one more very quick thing, which is that for the first women’s magazine story I ever wrote, the editor told me outright that if I couldn’t find anyone who’d ‘fess up to the behavior that was supposed to be a trend (the whole point of the story), I was free to invent characters. For the record, I did not. And the story never ran because the real people I talked to just weren’t outrageous enough. (This wasn’t a science or health story, but nonetheless.)

I know that there are amazing and talented editors at these magazines who would love to publish an expose on palm oil, or a profile of a 27-year-old breast cancer survivor who doesn’t look like a supermodel. But often their hands are tied—whether by advertisers or the institutional structure or the status quo. I think women who shell out hard-earned money to buy these magazines deserve better. They at least need to know that much of what they’re reading isn’t entirely true.

Or maybe I’m being naïve? Maybe the readers all know this already, and I’m the rube who’s clinging to some goody-two-shoes rules. One thing seems clear, in any case: I probably won’t be offered any more assignments by women’s magazines.

Photo credit: jaimelondonboy via Flickr

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85 Responses to Their So-Called Journalism, or What I Saw at the Women’s Mags

  1. Neuroskeptic says:

    Oops submitted that comment prematurely.

    It really reminds me of my days as a student journalist, to be honest. I could tell very similar stories to yours. It didn’t bother me much because I thought, well it’s only student journalism, who cares, but for that (and worse) to happen in a “real” publication is just shocking.

  2. Hillary says:

    It is shocking–and what’s more shocking is how many emails I’ve gotten already from people who have similar stories to tell but who won’t tell them publicly, because they want to keep reaping the $2/word paychecks. Which I completely understand, particularly in this economy. And I hope they’ll all buy me tacos when I’m blacklisted and hungry.

  3. Interesting, but yeah, not surprising.

    I would be curious what magazines you *are* a fan of? Are there any that can be bought at a newstand/grocery check out line that you think is worth the paper they’re printed on?

  4. Hillary says:

    Yes, I think there are loads of high-quality magazines being published. Most of the magazines I’ve written for over the years are staffed by really first-rate editors who care a tremendous amount about good journalism.
    I’ve always wondered, too, why there’s such a huge difference between men’s mags and women’s mags. Men’s mags, like GQ and Esquire, tend to do some terrific journalism on serious issues–because, what, men like to read that stuff but women only want to read about sex and makeup and dieting? Obviously, I’m not the first person to point this out. But it’s still baffling to me.

  5. Deevybee says:

    The comments so far suggest this is just how the news media are in general, but I do think you’re right and there’s something specially awful about the “women’s” mags. I only read them in waiting rooms, but what always annoys me is that it’s not just that they don’t have any science stories – they’re bursting at the seams with antiscientific woo. Tons of publicity for beauty and health treatments that cost a lot and have no evidence to back them, e.g. detox diets, aromatherapy, etc. The impression is that this is what editors think women want. I guess there must be many that do, or they wouldn’t sell, but it’s depressing.

  6. Cynthia Graber says:

    Horrible, indefensible, unjournalistic behavior. I’m glad you went public with it.

  7. Thank you for posting this, Hillary. Some years ago, I was invited to write a book review for a fledgling magazine that I won’t identify here. I wrote an ambivalent, not sharply negative, assessment. I was never consulted on the editing–something that I had come to expect in years of writing–but the piece was short and straightfoward enough that I didn’t think I had to worry about how it would be handled. Well, I learned the hard way. I was horrified to discover that even the slightest negative-sounding criticism had been edited out and puffy, positive language inserted. I had been writing about dance for many years and, though poorly paid in that field of journalism, had never been disrespected and exploited in such a manner by any editor. When I complained to this editor, she told me that the magazine’s policy was to support the book authors. My own words hadn’t been sufficiently supportive.

  8. Abie says:

    Take heart : there are indeed magazines that “would love to publish an expose on palm oil, or a profile of a 27-year-old breast cancer survivor who doesn’t look like a supermodel.”
    I know of one French example : Causette http://www.causette.fr/
    There must be others.

  9. Maryn says:

    Thank you for the compliment (and yes, Elizabeth is fantastic, sharp, ethical too), and thanks even more for writing this. I don’t by any means want to whitewash the bad stuff that goes on. I’ve experienced some of it, but by sheer random luck, perhaps, not as much as you. I’m grateful you exposed the crazy shit that goes on.

  10. Thank you for being forthright here. I worked in women’s magazines for some time and can testify to the truth of what you’re saying here (in the aggregate; I don’t know about the specific instances).

    But let me add this: The #1 thing women’s magazines have done excellently is spread information about women’s health concerns. They do this by having a uniform message–the service, the “takeaway”–and in order to do that, the message by necessity is streamlined. I see the problems you’re writing about here as being a direct result of that streamlining. In order to have a singular message, the complexities of science fall by the wayside–and I’d argue that for a mass audience, perhaps they need to. That’s ABSOLUTELY not to say that we should print falsehoods or that readers of women’s magazines don’t deserve complex science writing. But I think that in order for writing of all kinds in these magazines to be evaluated we need to remember part of the genesis of why things became mangled the way they did.

  11. Kate Jeffery says:

    Why can’t we have an intelligent women’s magazine, for intelligent women? One with actual articles? I’ve taken to bringing my laptop to the hairdressers because I can’t stand three hours reading those wretched ad-rags (yes I know, I could stop colouring my hair instead!).

  12. Laura B says:

    I’ll buy you tacos! Tacos for all!

    The blaming the fact-checker part of this really irked me, as I have been both a columnist and a fact-checker. We’re easy to blame, but when your entire job relies on confirming information, it’s unlikely that you would mess up a story about breast cancer.

    UGH. Thanks for taking the risk to publish this, I will be much more careful about which publications I fork over my taco money to from now on…

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  14. Sarah says:

    This perfectly reflects my experience. Thank you for having the courage to share.

  15. Siri Carpenter says:

    Thank you for this frank post, Hillary. I have experienced similarly unethical practices (such as editors changing sources’ quotes or watering down the science in stories to the point of creating a completely false narrative) at some magazines I’ve written for, including women’s magazines but also at least one “general interest” magazine. In the latter case, I was so distressed by the editors’ insistence at creating “awe” around a truly dubious technology that I ended up removing my name from the story. But that was a very difficult decision, in part because of my lack of certainty about what was a “normal” practice during editing — was the situation as egregious as I thought it was? What is helpful about your post is that it invites discussion around just that question. Bravo for raising the issue.

  16. Mary Knudson says:

    Thanks for writing this. Awful practices that should be exposed and stopped. Wish you could cite particular magazines. I hope your story encourages other writers who have had similar experiences to speak out.

  17. Daniel says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve been misquoted in magazine articles a few times on sustainability issues, and it’s extremely frustrating and aggravating — particularly when I’ve given the reporter forty-five minutes of my time and what gets printed is a single mangled sentence based off a side comment I made in our conversation. So I’m glad to know that the line editor or fact-checker could be the guilty party, not the reporter (who is usually quite friendly and interesting to talk t0)!

  18. Hillary says:

    This is a great question. I do recall that a bunch of years back Marie Claire announced it was going to become a smart mag, sort of the girl equivalent to GQ, and I think they tried for a while but circulation went down and so they returned to the same old formula. Maybe it’s just what the majority of women want–something mindless to read in the doctor’s waiting room.

  19. Hillary says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Siri! I actually wondered a similar thing as I was writing this post–what if everyone’s like, “So what?” or “Duh” and no one thinks this is a problem? Someone I was discussing this with earlier today said something along these lines. Her point was, “Well, what do you expect? Do you really think people read women’s magazines for intelligent journalism?” And possibly–probably–the answer is no. They read them for fashion tips and makeup advice and to see what plastic surgery Courtney Cox is having. But that doesn’t mean that when these magazines do tackle serious health or science-related topics that they can be sloppy about it. And most of these magazines have fact-checking departments and fairly strict editorial guidelines, at least on paper. Those seem to go out the window in practice.

  20. Hillary says:

    Ugh, that sounds like a really frustrating experience. But it’s true–it’s not necessarily the reporter’s fault. Though of course it could very well be.

  21. Pepper says:

    A nicely worded wail. In general, the higher the word-rate, the more eyes see your article before it is published, and the more damage is done. Because nobody wants to pass copy through without marking it up.

    And it’s hard to know what’s more loathsome: having your tight, well-researched article turned basically into a deep caption, or having to come up with deep captions that require twice the work of the original article, so that a meager 900-word piece is stretched over 8 magazine pages. And don’t get me started on fact-checkers!

  22. CS says:

    How about Ms. Magazine?

  23. Stepping back into the comment stream to defend the fact-checkers I have worked with at SELF, SciAm and MORE. All of those books ask for all your materials — SELF and MORE ask for sound files and interview transcripts as well as all articles and websites — and the fact-checkers with whom I have worked not only go over all those, but also do independent research as well. I’m sad they are apparently the minority, but I would not want anyone reading this thread to come away thinking that good fact-checkers don’t exist. NB: YMMV.

  24. Hillary says:

    Totally agree with Maryn. Fact-checkers rule, generally.

  25. Lili Fugit says:

    I only buy Vogue twice a year, for the pictures (I’m an artist who works on the edge of the fashion industry so I feel like it’s my duty), but I am uniformally disgusted by everything I’ve ever read there, and in a multitude of other “women’s” magazines. It doesn’t matter if it is health related, science, food, politics, whatever–I seriously think they believe we are stupid. I can’t think of any other explanation.

    I will say, I’ve also bought GQ off and on for years, and the idea that men’s magazines don’t also push particular things for industry is a tad naive– they are pretty obviously biased and occasionally dumb. But they are no where near as egregious as Vogue.

  26. Alexandra says:

    No kidding. I absolutely loathe women’s magazines as I honestly find them incredibly patronizing. I could not give a shit who is divorcing and who has had an affair. I was absolutely dismayed with the rapid and complete demise of Women’s Health – which is a disgrace, as an amateur marathoner I would dearly love a women’s specific mag which actually gives sound scientific advice about health and fitness. But no such luck, orgasms and botox it is. Drives me crazy. What is worse is that I now find the running magazines have the same attitude, with fluff articles about ‘cute running clothes’. Umm how about a serious scientific article on managing anaemia? Or some other factor that many women face. It’s so damn belittling. New Scientist, BBC Wildlife and Outdoors for me.
    Thanks for posting this piece and taking a stance!

  27. Tony Fisk (@arfisk) says:

    Asking ‘why’ is annoying enough in a child, but is the biggest act of subverison an adult can commit. (Was it always so?)
    To be dangerously naive is Bill McKibben’s resolution for the new year.
    Elsewhere, Alex Steffen states that cynicism is obedience, and is currently musing on how hidden agendas are bought out into the open and recognised.

    The thing is, these agendas are more likely to arise from lack of foresight than from any deliberate attempt to misguide or suppress. While those editors may be assuming that their beauty advertisers will complain about articles condemning palm oil. Do they actually know this? Try talking to the companies themselves and see what their reaction would be. (I predict an initial human empathy, followed by a more ‘measured’ corporate response)

  28. Hillary,

    Great post! As a fellow freelancer, it’s a bit disheartening that the “sorority” of women’s mags are so unwilling to report on good stories out of fear of losing ad dollars, and even worse, don’t have the highest ethical standards. That behavior starts at the top. Diverting blame to the fact-checkers? C’mon.

    You should consider pitching your story to This American Life:
    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/about/submissions

  29. Working for women’s mags can be quite dismaying. However, I have also had some great experiences with them.

    I wrote several health articles for Cosmo a few years ago, and every time it was a great experience. Yes, Cosmo. I wrote a story for them on genetic testing, from the angle of “do you want to know what’s in your future.” I am still proud of that story. Where else are Cosmo girls going to read about genetic testing and the ethical and personal questions it raises? (I was also writing for the New York Times at the same time, an odd combination for sure.)

    Of course, my work for Cosmo was several years ago. More recently I had some really dismal experiences with Health. I rarely pitch women’s mags anymore. But I agree with Maryn — they are certainly not all a lost cause. And I do believe that many of the editors really do care — but they get overruled by the “editing by committee.”

  30. Michelle says:

    Great post, Hillary.
    I know there have been several attempts at “good” women’s magazines, and I know there’s some valuable work done in women’s magazines in general, but unless you’re talking about an explicitly political magazine like Ms., gendered consumer magazines seem almost doomed to be silly. Both women’s and men’s mags have to cater to these super-broad stereotypes — the only reason men’s magazines are less painful to read is that the stereotypical man has a brain as well as a body.

  31. All these magazines have “10 Ways To Look Sexy” OR “10 Ways To Lose Weight,” writing the same points in 10 different ways, so we go out and buy 10 different magazines to tell us the same 10 points.

    Funny how we all need 10 different ways to be stupid.

  32. Yes! This has always irked me as well, especially when I have to explain to someone why I’d rather pitch a story to GQ or Details than Marie Claire or Elle and it basically boils down to: the men’s mags are smarter. I have had many similar experiences to yours, both for women’s mags and for travel mags (also not in the truth business), including a story slated as a feature on pinkwashing that was killed because the magazine was filled with ads that were really good examples of the problem. Sigh. Anyway, kudos to you for having the lady balls to air the grievance openly.

  33. Hillary says:

    I hope your pinkwashing story found a better home! (Did it?) Did they explicitly tell you that was why they weren’t running it? Surely they knew who their advertisers were when they assigned the piece?

  34. M. Benavides says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! I am a physician, and I can’t tell you how many times I have been flipping through a magazine in a salon and seen health information that is just plain wrong. It’s scary that women may actually believe what they read in those magazines.

  35. Tom Mills says:

    It’s not just women’s magazines. I did a travel essay several years ago for the Los Angeles Times, and the travel editor who was in charge of my piece sent me her edit back for approval. In it she had decided that my story about a weekend away with my wife to the Jersey shore would be better enhanced if we had a family in tow, so she simply invented a daughter for us that came along. I was shocked to say the least and told her so. She pulled the section without much argument, but – big surprise here – I was never invited to do another piece for the Times. Maybe the lady was just a clairvoyant because years later my wife and I became proud parents of a wonderful daughter. On the topic of palm oil, it is a devastating cash crop that is tearing the forest of Indonesia apart, and with it driving the amazing orangutan ever closer toward extinction. As the Director of Development for the Orangutan Conservancy, I’ve seen this trend grow dramatically this past year, most recently with orangutans murdered by palm oil plantation workers that were paid bonuses to hunt down the animals. I’ve also seen mainstream media too often ignore the subject altogether. While canola and many other oils are clearly better choices for our planet, palm is the oil cash crop of choice for companies as it’s much cheaper to produce. While few expect palm oil to go away completely, by carefully choosing eco-friendly products where they’re available the consumer can do their part to help Asia’s sole great ape survive, even if large magazines decide an ad for a beauty product containing palm oil is more important than writing about the crisis that is occurring far away from America.

  36. A journo says:

    Ms. is fine reading if not terribly compelling. But they don’t treat their writers much better than what Hillary is describing here if you account for them sitting on filed stories for over a year, then asking for rewrites, etc. Same shit other women’s mags do, and far worse pay at Ms.

  37. Maybe PLoS should get into the magazine business? “Science Woman”, articles by/for/about women in science, both as subjects and as practitioners. Imaginary Table of Contents

    Profile – Woman scientist

    Article – General science article written by a woman

    Article – Science article relating to woman’s health

    Should be do-able, especially with all the great content now available on the web!

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  39. Jeanne Erdmann says:

    Hillary,

    Thanks for the wonderfully written post. I think you’ve struck a nerve. More than one, perhaps. Until recently, I’ve done little writing for consumer magazines, but I have had some bad experiences that echo what you have endured. Recently, an editor at a consumer magazine referred to a quote and said, “Can’t we have [source X] saying this?” I was shocked that she’d make such a suggestion. I’d written for two other editors at this publication but never this particular editor. I handled her request by going into my notes and finding an instance in which this particular source said much the same thing — and then I used a paraphrase with a similar punch line but not a direct quote.

    Had I not interviewed so many sources who repeated similar advice my answer would have been a simple, “No, we can’t.” That doesn’t mean that I feel good about what I did. Afterwards, I wondered if I should have just made that my answer on principle, however, there were so many issues in general over this story that I took the easy way out. I don’t know that I will write for this publication again but I will never write for this editor again.

    I do contribute to the health section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and I’ve never had anything like this or what anyone else has described happen there; nor could I imagine such requests being posited. Same goes for at any of the science pubs for which I’ve written.

    That said, I am preparing some science based pitches to a few women’s magazines so I will see how the experience goes.

  40. Hillary says:

    Tom, that’s crazy. I can’t believe that happened–particularly at a newspaper. Is that editor still there?

  41. Hillary says:

    Sure–now if you can just figure out where the $ will come from… :)

  42. CS says:

    I know Hillary’s story is more about journalism/women’s mags than palm oil, but I thought you all might be interested in this cool story about two Girl Scouts who are tackling the palm oil issue:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/09/girl-scouts-win-award-united-nations_n_1265843.html

  43. Brita B. says:

    Nonprofit magazines such as ours — E – The Environmental Magazine — publish serious journalism on scientific and environmental topics along with fluff-free health, eating, investing and green living columns, but struggle to compete. Glad you’re outing these magazines, and we’d welcome your insight at E!

  44. Raj Mukhopadhyay says:

    This is a great post how journalism should be done. Thank you so much for not giving a shit!

  45. Tom Mills says:

    I don’t believe so, at least not in Travel, but I don’t write for them anymore so I couldn’t say. Maybe she’s in the fiction section now.

  46. Kristen G says:

    Editors are ruining journalism – you have integrity in an industry where it is not rewarded. Maybe start an online magazine of your own? This is way more honest and interesting than the garbage in magazines. Thanks for taking the risk and putting this out there -

  47. Dan says:

    Great post, although it would have been nice if there were some more specific examples. I can appreciate not wanting to burn bridges, but a lot of the tales here are so vague that it basically just comes down to “all women’s magazines are bad, don’t listen to them”

  48. elaine says:

    I had this writer’s exact experience when I worked for Hearst Magazines 30 years ago. There were orders by editors to invent quotes, fabricate sources, change facts to fiction — whatever it took to match the coverlines. After I quit working for that company, I decided I’d never again purchase or read Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmo or other Hearst titles. I’ve kept that promise to myself every day since. I wouldn’t believe any words they print, including “and” and “the.”

  49. Hillary says:

    To be clear, I don’t think editors are ruining journalism. Quite the opposite: I would be nowhere without good editors, and I’m deeply indebted to many of the ones I work with–for making my stories way better than they would have been otherwise, and for giving me the opportunity to write them to begin with.
    I think that a lot of editors at women’s magazines are probably frustrated as hell at the things they’re asked to do on a daily basis. But they need to earn a living like we all do, and that’s unfortunately the state of things. But perhaps if more people protest the system, it will change. I don’t really believe this is true, but one can hope…

  50. Paul Raeburn says:

    Hillary,

    Nice post, and I share your frustration–I’ve had enough bad experiences with women’s mags to last a lifetime. Although, I have to say, I’ve had many of the same experiences with other mags, too. It’s not nearly as big a problem elsewhere, but women’s mag editors are not the only ones who know what the story is going to say before any reporting is done.

    I had an editor at Business Week who would regularly tell me what my story was going to say before I’d made one call. In desperation at one morning meeting, I asked him to try to find me some source, any source, who agreed with him–because all of my sources said he was nuts.

  51. Eric Celeste says:

    Sadly, as you note, this is not new. About 15-16 years ago, I was assigned a story by Glamour to write about women who have affairs and why they do so. I scoured the literature and interviewed dozens of women. But their answers (to summarize: buncha reasons) didn’t fit with the editor’s preconceived ideas/cover line, and we agreed I couldn’t fulfill her/the mag’s expectations.

  52. Late to this party, but just had to share my own story from a women’s magazine: My piece included a fact about the energy/climate impact of bottled water. The fact checkers raked me over the coals about it, but my sources were good. I later heard that my editor on the piece (she was a junior editor at the time) almost quit when her bosses told her they weren’t going to include it in the piece because it would offend advertisers. Eventually, she moved onto another publication… I always wondered if that event was a precipitating factor. Also, I can’t remember if the fact ultimately made it into the piece, or not.

  53. Re E Magazine, we would all love to write for pubs like that, but unfortunately, they sure don’t pay enough to live on. Writers do have to eat once in a while!

  54. Dahlia says:

    Brava! And brave. Thank you for writing this.

  55. Grant says:

    Can I ask who, then, you feel the buck rests with? Assuming there is one dominant player that is pivotal in this. I’ve long wondered to what extent the issue of accurate coverage rests on editors (as opposed to writers), but here you infer that this lies in ‘what is asked of them’. Would this be the business team behind the (individual) publication, etc.?

  56. Marthinus says:

    Yet the mags sell, so it seems people don’t want the truth, they want Oprah.

    Also if you keep working for someone while you don’t agree with their actions, just for the money, doesn’t make you a soulless hippocrate?

  57. Melissa says:

    Thank you for confirming what I have long believed about much of what I have been reading in many magazines. Not only do the articles often seem to be pushing particular agendas, they seem to be unwilling to correct information when it is later proven untrue, false, or inaccurate. This has been a huge problem for me as I have two young daughters and I grew up pouring over magazines, getting ideas for make-up, developing style, and also reading the articles. It has been difficult to let them do this. Often, I have had to tear out articles due to content that wasn’t age appropriate (in Seventeen, no less), or we have had to have very long discussions about what magazines will do sell themselves. Thanks for the information, now they won’t think that their parents are just some overprotective, paranoid prudes!

  58. Hillary says:

    That’s a great question. I think of women’s magazines as falling into three categories: fashion, beauty, and health. With the first two, the problem is that they’re essentially advertising vehicles. And I don’t think that’s particularly controversial to say. It’s just the truth.
    The problem is that they also happen to run stories that are ostensibly “journalism.” And they employ fact-checkers and have supposedly strict editorial guidelines about what sources are acceptable and what materials you must provide to the fact-checking department and so on. But if the whole question of what stories make it into the mag to begin with is determined by what will be acceptable to advertisers, then you’ve already kind of ditched your journalistic integrity. And if you’re going to tell your writers what you want them to say from the get-go, and then change their quotes (or other things) at will, then why bother employing fact-checkers? I think the problem lies in pretending to be something other than a vehicle for advertisers.
    I got an interesting email yesterday from a historian who suggested I read Harvey Levenstein’s two volume work on American food, Revolution at the Table and The Paradox of Plenty. I wasn’t aware of the history of women’s magazines, but apparently the latter volume explores the long and tangled relationship between women’s mags and agribusiness–editors letting food companies write their own articles, magazines promoting whatever the companies were selling (such as frozen dinners and other highly processed foods that helped pave the way for our current obesity crisis and other such messes).
    Anyway, as I said earlier, I think there are a lot of smart, talented and frustrated editors at these magazines. I know several who ended up quitting in frustration. But their bosses, the editors-in-chief, are ultimately at the mercy of the publishers, who are ultimately in the pocket of the advertisers.

  59. Tori says:

    Well, what do you expect? Do you really think people read women’s magazines for intelligent journalism?

    On the flip side, there are people — like me — who don’t read women’s magazines because of the lack of intelligent, nuanced journalism, particularly when it comes to health and fitness issues. I’m probably never going to care about the “celebrity gossip” angle of plastic surgery — but I might well pick up a magazine that addressed the realities of various surgeries as medical procedures.

    So, yes, they might be catering to a certain demographic of readers — but they’re also missing out on attracting other women to that magazine.

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  62. Grant says:

    Hilary,

    Thanks for you reply. I’ll try keep this short as this column is getting rather narrow!

    Part of the reason I ask is that I have for some time been meaning to write suggesting that improving editing standards re science content might be as worthy, if not more so, as tackling writer’s (draft) content.

    It’s also part of the reason behind my suggesting a session on editors and editing for ScienceOnline13 (it’s on the wiki).

    Your remark gave me pause for thought and made me wonder that while I might be right point at a role for better editing (to whatever degree) in newspapers, the picture might be more complex for magazines, at least for women’s magazines. (I’m well aware newspapers have their own issues, time constraints being one obvious example.)

    Also! – I can’t help thinking it’d be interesting to check the company registers to see if some magazines are partly (or even wholly) owned by these agribusiness interests or similar business interests.

  63. Grant says:

    Correction: ‘Thanks for your reply.’ (Sorry about that, for some infernal reason dropping the ’r’ on ‘your’ is a common typo for me…!)

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  66. KateClancy says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I wish there was a way to change women’s mags or show them that there are plenty of women who want smart journalism, not just fluff (I sympathized a lot with the earlier commenter who is a marathoner – I hate Women’s Health because it isn’t actually about women’s health, but unfortunately Runner’s World isn’t that much better!). I’d like to think that those of us who write about women’s health issues on science blogs can provide good information that isn’t contained in those magazines, but I don’t think those audiences are searching for our voices. So it’s a huge problem to figure out how to get a more nuanced, accurate message out to more people.

    Thanks again!

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  68. Jo says:

    Someone’s got to have the guts to tell the truth about the manipulated crap that gets published and fed to people. I think there would be a lot of people who would be surprised about how much is mangled, especially stories on health and dieting, mainly I think because to most people, lying or being misleading or editorially leaning toward the bias of a corporate monolith for profit about things that have health implications for the readers would be unethical. That surely the press have standards… Brave move. You rock : )

  69. Juniper says:

    I’d like to join the chorus of thanks for this blog! For several years I was the editor of a regional general interest/lifestyle magazine, and eventually quit my job and the magazine business altogether because the experience left such a sour taste in my mouth. We were 100% wrapped around the little finger of our advertisers, to the point where virtually every story wound up being a thinly veiled advertorial. My publisher (it was a very small magazine, so he was extremely “hands-on” – a polite way of putting it) often rewrote stories to suit advertisers’ agendas, attempted to create narratives as a means of “helping” our advertisers’ business, and was only interested in “serious” stories if there was some superficially sensational angle that might titillate our readers. Often, I saw stories get killed because the female subjects weren’t attractive enough to merit a photo. Frivolous stories frequently became cover articles because the subject happened to be “photogenic.” While, on the other hand, we ran a handful of covers of men who were either “successful,” “powerful” or “controversial,” (many of whom were advertisers, of course) despite not being “photogenic” by any stretch of the imagination. It was a deeply misogynistic editorial standard that I fought for years, and sadly, eventually abandoned once it became clear that as long as the advertisers hold the purse strings, their opinions would always trump mine.

    So, to the gentleman above who asked where the responsibility ultimate lies, my response would be “whomever has the cash.” Or perhaps more accurately, whomever is in the position of making sure the people with the cash are happy. In my experience, he (and it so often is “he”) who holds the cash sets the agenda. Editors’ roles are often relegated to that of starry-eyed patsy paid to be a mouthpiece for advertisers.

    The scariest and worst part is–and call me cynical–I assume most news outfits, particularly network and cable news, run on the same model of business over integrity.

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  74. Clare Young says:

    Thank you for the fantastic post – as a reader, I’ve not read woman’s magazines for years, mainly because I found them dull and predictable. It was also clear that I was way outside their ‘target market’.
    As a writer, it’s understandable why you’d want to take the jobs. As an editor it’s understandable that you have other people hanging over your head.
    I’d imagine that many women and men would be far more thankful for you to be writing the kind of stuff you want to write – I hope you managed to get a (paid) home for it!

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  77. Britni Day says:

    I guess I’m a little late to the party here, but I just read this article in the Spring 2012 edition of Science Writers and I am thrilled to see someone speaking out about this.
    I’m very saddened to hear about your experience with a rarely touched resource that could inform and educate thousands of women on our planet’s issues. I’m also thoroughly disgusted to hear an editor would be more than willing to misquote your sources, putting your reputation on the line while they could get off free and clear.
    Yet, this comes as no surprise since I’ve had many similar bad experiences with editors, mentors and even colleagues poo-pooing the rules of true journalism in favor of a fabricated quote or fact to up readership and web ratings.
    I recently graduated with an MA in science and environmental journalism and I have been discouraged by many mass and local media organizations to write about what I love. I even had an editor from a very prominent mass media organization tell me, “Science is a hard sell, so forget about it.”
    It’s not just chemical formulas and beakers we’re writing about, it’s global issues that touch every part of the world around us. It floors me that your story on the severe decline of the orangutan due to oil palm tree farms in Borneo take s back seat to “How to Flatten Your Abs, Please Your Man and Lose 30 Pounds in Just 20 Minutes.” Women find this awfulness important because it’s stuffed in our face by mass media every day.
    I could rant forever, but what I wanted to say is after reading your article you are a huge encouragement to me as a green science journalist who has already seen how ugly things can get. So, thank you for speaking up, thank you for keeping up the fight and thank you for writing about what really matters or should matter to the world.

  78. Hillary says:

    How discouraging, Britni, to have an editor try to dissuade you from covering science! All I can say is, stand your ground. No one gets into journalism to write about crap they don’t think is important–especially not these days, when you can make a lot more money doing just about anything else. Since, as you say, science touches on virtually every issue out there, maybe you should try slipping the science/enviro issues you want to cover into articles that are seemingly on other subjects–kind of like sneaking kale into brownies.

  79. Eric Flinner says:

    Terrific post however I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Appreciate it!

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  82. ava says:

    This doesn’t just happen at women’s magazines and you have your head in the sand if you believe so.

  83. AT says:

    A genuine thank you for writing this.