Montana Public Radio

Public Service And The Risks Facing Female Journalists

Apr 9, 2021

NBC Montana anchor/reporter Maritsa Georgiou talks with Gwen and Sally about how she has become a go-to source of information about COVID; about the importance of good news sources, and about the threats highly visible female TV journalists have to deal with.

Listen now on Parsing The Press with Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio.

Sally Mauk If someone were to hold a popularity contest for journalists in Montana right now, it's a pretty safe bet that NBC Montana anchor/reporter Maritsa Georgiou would win. Maritsa's become the go-to source of reliable information about the COVID pandemic in Montana and about how, when and where to get the vaccine. Maritsa is our guest today.

And Maritsa, tell us how you came to be the aggregator of COVID vaccine information, both on air and online through social media.

Maritsa Georgiou You know, just kind of happened, I think, by happy accident. It wasn't, certainly, something I set out to do, but I could see how many people were desperate for information. And after a year of covering COVID-19 and the numbers and so much awful, terrible, devastating news, it became a way where I saw an avenue to help people. And that's kind of how I was raised. If you have time and you have the resources to help somebody, you do that. And so it started really small with just giving the information and it turned into this bigger thing as I found appointments, as people called in saying they needed help. You know, I just said, of course I can help, like, I have time to do it. And why wouldn't I help someone if they needed it and I have the time?

Sally Mauk But you've also, besides giving out the general information, you've also personally assisted a number of individuals, help them get an appointment.

Maritsa Georgiou The vaccine appointments are coordinated mostly online. And so there's a large population, especially when you're talking about that first one big group of people over a certain age. They had no clue where to start. And even if they had a computer or Internet, it was a complicated process. It was like buying concert tickets. You had to be first and you had to be right there waiting at the right time. And it was really frustrating. And a lot of people just gave up.

And we did have this one gentleman call into the news station and he was just distraught and he said, I need help, I'm hoping someone can help me. And my co-anchor Laurel answered the call because I've been working from home this whole year. And she sent me the email with his phone number and I called him and talked to him and I said, OK, I'm going to set my alarm, there's an opening tomorrow. I think it was at one o'clock. I'll set an alarm. I'll call you five minutes before and we'll see what we can do, but let me tell you, they go really fast — within minutes — so I can't guarantee anything, but we'll try. We'll give it a go. And so we did that the next day and we got in and I got his information in and I told him on the phone, you know, you have an appointment. And he just started crying. And hearing the pure joy and relief in his voice after this horrific year of sadness and isolation and uncertainty, I mean, I'll never forget that feeling. And I have to say, I won't say it's entirely altruistic for me, because, you know, there is a therapeutic feeling in this for me. Like for every appointment I can help schedule, it helps counter some of that pain that we've talked about so much this last year

Sally Mauk Gwen, a lot of our reporting is often bad news, terrible crimes and tragedies. But I think sometimes the public forgets the crucial role we play in getting out helpful information during a crisis; so-called public service journalism. It's something that Maritsa exemplifies.

Gwen Florio Definitely, and not just in terms of her COVID reporting. Maritsa, I remember when the Postal Service was pulling up post office boxes in the middle of voting last year and you went all around town and documented where each and every post office box was being removed. And you just seem to specialize in this kind of reporting, which takes a lot more work. It's a lot more labor intensive than covering a fire, covering a court hearing. What is it about this that appeals to you and makes it worth the effort?

Maritsa Georgiou For me, the purpose of my job is to help shed light on issues that people might not know about, or answer questions for the audience I serve. And so if I am unable to do that, I just don't really feel like I'm fulfilling the purpose of my job. And so when we heard there were maybe some of these postal boxes being removed — at that point it was just kind of a rumor — and you know, frankly, I think all the credit here goes to the sources. Without sources inside the postal unions helping us figure out the addresses of those boxes and pointing us in the right direction I would have been lost. But because we had those sources it became a lot easier. And I think you see on a story like that, you know, we saw the impact same day. You know, that was a catalyst for national policy change the same day where the USPS nationally said we're going to stop this until after the election. And when you see those kinds of results it's really a driving force to keep doing those stories on that page.

Sally Mauk Gwen, our reporting depends heavily on how good and how trustworthy our sources are. And one thing that frustrates me is when government sources aren't as cooperative with reporters as I think they should be, especially in times like a public health crisis. It's crucial.

Gwen Florio I'm really curious about the fact that, just as Sally said, transparency and access is super important when it comes to government sources. We've had a big change in Montana in this last election in terms of our government. Has that affected that access and that transparency?

Maritsa Georgiou It's a little bit hard to say for sure at this point because, you know, you have to give any new administration time to settle in and figure things out. And every communications office is run differently, right? And so there's an important balance that comes with this kind of information. It's a symbiotic relationship. We need them for certain information and to answer our questions from the public. But they also need us to deliver their messages, the directives, the good and bad news. So, you know, it's hoped, of course, in my Pollyanna lens, that information will be shared that needs to be shared. Of course, you know that doesn't always happen. And that's with every office. I mean, if you look at what's been going down in New York with the COVID-19 death numbers in nursing homes, and it takes critical questions sometimes, and often sources, like we said, from the inside, tipping those journalists off to uncover stories like those.

Sally Mauk Finally Maritsa, radio and print reporters like Gwen and I can move through the world fairly anonymously. But TV reporters are recognizable celebrities, which hopefully most of the time is fun. But there can also be a downside, especially for female TV reporters who get comments on everything from their appearance to their demeanor, etc. That's challenging sometimes, I know.

Maritsa Georgiou It is challenging and I would say too, its females across the entire spectrum, but there's something about TV reporters who are female who are just, not only more public, but also very accessible. And that's the concern. And you want to be accessible. I mean, I love my relationship with our audience and our viewers. And I have people who I communicate with all the time via email or Twitter who I've never met in person. You want to be accessible because that's how you know what's going on in your community. But it can take a sharp turn. And I just don't think there is any female TV reporter who hasn't experienced the comments — whether it's through email or private messages or on the street — sometimes inappropriate and sometimes downright vulgar. I've certainly talked to the police a handful of times about things that have been said to me or sent in my way.

And I am not alone. I have a friend who was sent an engagement ring and a bus ticket to another state. And so it's certainly something to be concerned about. And you think about people like Jodi Huisentruit and Jen Servo, two female TV journalists who are no longer with us, and still both unsolved, by the way. There's this other aspect to that where TV journalists lately, in recent years, are often one-person bands. They go out, they shoot their stories on their own, they're by themselves. And that can be a really scary thing. So I hope it gets better. But for now, I mean, I'm really thankful for security cameras and a very protective husband.

Sally Mauk I think it's important to talk about it and to let the general world know that this is something that needs to change and it needs to change immediately.

Maritsa, keep up the good work. Thank you for being our guest today.

Maritsa and Gwen, thank you both so much.

The two female TV journalists Maritsa mentions in this discussion whose murders remain unsolved are Montana-born Jen Servo and Minnesotan Jodi Huisentruit. Servo worked for MTPR while in college, and for Missoula TV news. She was murdered in 2002 after taking a new TV job in Abilene, Texas. Huisentruit was working for an Iowa TV station when she went missing in 1995 and was declared legally dead in 2001. Her body has never been found.

Do you have a comment or suggestion for a future show? Contact Sally Mauk at sally.mauk@mtpr.org.