George Pyle: It matters who is in the room when decisions are made

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake Tribune Digital News Editor Rachel Piper, left, reporters Jessica Miller, Erin Alberty, Alex Stuckey and Managing Editor Sheila McCann celebrate as The Salt Lake Tribune wins its second Pulitzer Prize in its nearly 150-year history, earning the nod in Local Reporting for its groundbreaking investigation of rape at Utah colleges. (That's me in the back.)

People become journalists so they can see history being made.

And to learn that, sometimes, it just depends on who is in the room.

In the summer of 1976, I was there when one of the best newspaper writers I ever knew, Dorothy Melland (do I say that because later I married her daughter?) told the local institution named Stuart Awbrey, publisher of The Hutchinson (Kansas) News, that it was time for The News to stop referring to women by their husbands’ names. As in calling someone Mrs. John Smith instead of Elizabeth Smith.

Folks younger than I am have a difficult time imagining that such a practice survived the Jane Austen era. But it remained common as recently as that. The particular target of Dorothy’s ire was how the names were written in the headlines of obituaries. The last time — perhaps the only time — a woman might have her name in the paper, and it wasn’t even her name.

“Nobody knows who they are,” she said.

The publisher capitulated on the spot.

(Related: “Examining the Meaning of ‘Mrs.’” — The New York Times)

It seemed to me to be one of those things that should have been obvious, but hadn’t already been changed just because no one ever thought to bring it up. Dorothy, one of the few women in the room, had the status and the nerve to do so.

Not quite 41 years later, I inadvertently photobombed the front-page photograph of the The Salt Lake Tribune journalists who had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting.

I had absolutely nothing to do with all the work done to earn that prize and kind of wished they had airbrushed me out of the photo. But marking the highest achievement in the journalism profession by committing a mortal journalistic sin was out of the question.

Everyone else in the photo, those who had led the project, all happened to be women. Male reporters, photographers and editors were part of the effort, but the core was female. Which might not matter, except that the reporting that won the prize was about how women who were victims of sexual assault at Brigham Young University and Utah State University had been further harmed by lack of care and victim-blaming by those institutions.

And because the heavy lifting of the journalists on the case, beyond the painstaking reporting, was earning the confidence of the victims so they would speak out, on the record, mostly willing to be named and photographed, made the believable and impactful stories they created that much more so.

I cannot help but wonder, if the newsrooms of 2017 had been as overwhelmingly male as the newsrooms of 1976, if they still called women by their husbands’ names, whether any newspaper staff would have had the skill and the tenacity to do what The Tribune’s journalists — male and female — did.

And are doing.

Tribune reporters (mostly female) are now tirelessly pursuing the story of a female University of Utah student who was blackmailed and then murdered by an ex-boyfriend and, of more public policy interest, the numerous failures and atrocities apparently committed by the U. police along the way.

Another investigation is underway. But it is already obvious what one solution to the problem is. More women in positions of power.

It’s not that all women are good and all men are bad. It’s that the institutional culture of any place is affected by the people who are there.

It is not necessary for a woman, or a black person, or an LGBT individual, to deal only with a journalist, or a police officer, or a doctor, or a judge, or a teacher who belongs to the same category of humanity in order to receive justice. But if the white, straight, male reporter, cop, doctor, judge or teacher doesn’t work with and, by the nature of human interactions, seek to please and favorably impress colleagues of all kinds, the chances that he will do the right thing are greatly diminished.

It matters who is in the room.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has been fortunate to work with — and for — many amazing women over the years.