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24 November 2015updated 05 Oct 2023 8:46am

Is the news failing women? Some editors seem to think it’s the other way round

Global editors and journalists are debating whether their news coverage alienates half the world’s population.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Is the media letting women down? Both in terms of audiences and representation, it certainly seems so. A report released this week by the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) after 20 years of research into the news media of 114 countries paints a gloomy picture:

  • Women only make up 24 per cent of the persons heard, read about or seen in newspaper, television and radio news – exactly the same level found in the 2010 report.
  • Women are more than twice as likely as men to be portrayed as victims as they were a decade ago – 16 and 8 per cent respectively.
  • Across the six roles in which people appear when interviewed on the news (expert, spokesperson, eye witness, popular opinion, subject, personal experience), the largest stride in closing the gender gap is in people interviewed based on personal experience (38 per cent of personal experience testimonies are from women, compared to 31 per cent in 2005).
  • Only 37 per cent of stories in newspapers, television and radio newscasts are reported by women – this overall statistic hasn’t changed in ten years.
  • Women as news reporters are most present on radio, at 41 per cent, and least in print news, at 35 per cent.
  • The near-balance of television presenters in each age category documented in 2010 has been replaced by significant overrepresentation of younger women as anchors. However, a severe underrepresentation (29 per cent) of women in the 50-64 age bracket, and women’s complete disappearance at 65 years old has currently emerged.
  • The overall proportion of stories focussing on women has held relatively steady at 10 per cent since 2000. Economic news followed by political news are least likely to focus on women, currently at 5 per cent and 7 per cent of stories in these topics respectively.
  • Only 26 per cent of the people in online news stories and media news Tweets combined are women.

Since 1995, the GMMP has been tracking gender-related changes in news media every five years. The results of the 2015 survey are based on data gathered in 114 countries, with monitoring of 22,136 stories published, broadcast or tweeted by 2,030 distinct media outlets, written or presented by 26,010 journalists and containing 45,402 people interviewed or as subjects of the stories.

Click to enlarge. Source: Global Media Monitoring Project 2015.

The overall result of this research is that not much has changed in the past five years, when the situation was pretty bad to start with.

But this extensive research is apparently not enough to convince a number of well-respected editors – women and men – that the news is letting women down. This emerged as high-profile media figures from around the world debated the subject “Is the news failing women?” for the BBC’s 100 Women season. The debate was live on the BBC World Service on 23 November.

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Although most journalists at the debate agreed that women are underrepresented in news journalism, and men are more often the subject of news reports, they clashed over who is to blame for this.

Click to enlarge.

Society was the main culprit, and even women themselves didn’t come far down the list.

“We like to plant the idea in people’s heads that they should apply for jobs . . . Women themselves have to push themselves forward,” said deputy editor of The Times Emma Tucker, who was in the audience.

“The debate here is ‘is news letting down women?’, I sometimes wonder are women letting down the news by not actually pushing themselves hard enough?” she asked.

“I go to a lot of schools and I speak to groups of young kids, and I say – particularly to the girls – ‘do you read a newspaper?’ And they look back at me like zombies. I want to say to them, ‘read a newspaper, get engaged, get involved, and then you too can progress or get a job in the media.

I think blaming the media constantly isn’t necessarily the right thing. I think women have to do their bit too.”

Click to enlarge.

Debaters on the panel echoed Tucker’s claim that the onus should not solely be on the media to make its coverage more representative. Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear said: “We try to get a woman on [as a talking head] where we can but we often find when we call up women the woman might recommend a man [a male colleague]. They are much less pushy to get themselves on television . . . or more concerned [about lacking] expertise. Most blokes just say yes.”

But the argument that women are more reticent is a flawed one. If the newspapers, radio shows and television programmes that report the news are dominated by men, they look like less of an attractive environment to women invited to partake, or women who are qualified to apply for jobs at such places.

Equally, if the news that is covered is always decided and reported through the lens of a male-dominated newsroom, there is more of a risk of neglecting stories where women are central. Making newsrooms more women-friendly, and recruiting more women as news journalists and editors would go some way to rectify the problem of women failing to come forward.

The BBC World Service director Fran Unsworth argued that it was an unequal society, rather than lack of women, that leads to unequal coverage: “News is a reflection of the world in which we live – there’s not much we can do if Bashar al-Assad is a man and Vladimir Putin is a man and David Cameron is man”.

But Al Jazeera America president Kate O’Brian countered: “The world that we live in is not equal for women. [It’s not enough] just to say the leaders are mostly men.”

Click to enlarge.

Unsworth did suggest that editors can make decisions about which stories to cover, without artificially bumping stories about women up the news list. She spoke about the importance of “ensuring editorial output includes stories that are interesting to women. There are choices.” She gave the example of a recent story about toilets in India compromising women’s safety as the kind of story crucial to women that news organisations could choose to cover without being tokenistic.

But a speaker invited on stage, Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, decried the idea of making coverage specifically appeal to female audiences: “I can’t imagine anything worse than gendered news . . . ‘We want more female Isis suicide bombers’? No, thank you . . . We don’t want to be treated as women, we want to be treated as intelligent humans like everybody else.”

Regarding the finding that women are increasingly being represented as victims, Fox held the modern feminist movement partially responsible: “Contemporary feminism is playing the victim card a lot.”

Click to enlarge.

The first female editor of a Saudi national newspaper, Somayya Jabarti, argued that good mentors are crucial for women to progress in the media, citing the male editor who helped her along the way to seniority. “I am against putting women in certain positions [just because they are women],” she said. “Tokenism is used and abused . . . I would not have progressed if my editor was not enlightened. It is not men versus women.”

On the other end of the spectrum was the panellist Verashni Pillay, editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa, who spoke in favour of using quotas to help women into the media. “We’re dealing with the effect of millennia of patriarchy,” she warned. “Mentoring is not enough.”

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Mic News’s Elizabeth Plank, speaking by videolink from the US, gave a similar defence against enacting “gender-blindness” instead of actively promoting women: “I don’t think we can be gender-blind unless the world is an equal playing field”, she said, but added on a brighter note:

“You look at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr. These are female-dominated platforms. They are power users and use these platforms to speak to each other, build coalitions and mobilise . . . Women on social media are power users. Men use it in a different way [to promote themselves] . . . women use it to connect with others.”

Research by GMMP into the gender balance in new media doesn’t convey this at the moment. It reports: “The underrepresentation of women observed in traditional mediums appears to have seamlessly crossed over into digital news delivery platforms.”

But because these kinds of news platforms are so modern, there is far less information to go by – and fewer comparisons with the past to be made. So we haven’t yet seen the full story.

Considering the enduring laissez-faire attitude of many senior editors in traditional news organisations, and the little research it has been possible to gather so far on digital outlets, perhaps new media is where equality eventually lies. But one thing’s certain – it won’t be if we continue to blame women and not the news organisations that are overlooking half the population.

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