Lowly News Status Is a Global Insult 

Another year, another poor report for women in the media

The latest global study of women in journalism finds that women continue to be the far-second sex in breaking and making news.

Monitors for the third Global Media Monitoring Project studied a full day of radio, television and newspaper content in 76 countries on a single day, February 16, 2005. The study found that women continue to be under-represented, and sometimes outright ignored, as subjects of and sources for news, regardless of the medium. There is not a single major news topic in which women outnumber men as newsmakers.

"Even in stories that affect women profoundly, such as gender-based violence, it is the male voice (64 percent of news subjects) that prevails," the report released last week in London found.

The new media monitoring report confirms findings of smaller studies, but at least two things about it are particularly striking. First is its magnitude; teams worked in 76 countries, all on the same day. Second is how grossly and globally consistent is the pattern of second-class status. This should disabuse journalists in developed nations from seeing themselves as more advanced in their gender thinking. Equitable treatment of women simply hasn't advanced along with other measures of development.

"From Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, we see the same patterns of under-representation and stereotyped portrayal of women in the news," said Anna Turley, coordinator of the most recent monitoring effort. "The reason for these patterns is complicated. From the story angle and the choice of interview questions to the use of language and the choice of images, all these have a bearing on the messages that emerge in the news. These patterns are deeply rooted not only in professional practice, but in wider social assumptions about female and male attributes, roles and competencies."

The report calls for immediate and corrective action.

Organizers have joined with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in a campaign to ask all media producing daily news to turn editorial responsibility over to women on March 8, 2006, International Women's Day.

The project's coordinators are urging women to use the data to push debate with regional news media about the findings. I would further urge advocacy groups to undertake their own, similar studies of local media, since newspaper editors and broadcast news directors are much more likely to respond to documentation about shortcomings in their own performance.

Authors of the report also provide a section of recommendations for editors and reporters who, with a tiny bit of effort, could start tailoring coverage to better fit a world with women in it. It's my duty to report these correctives, even if they are almost embarrassingly obvious.

Editors are encouraged to add a female viewpoint to stories that have none. (One story on divorce, they found, quoted only males.) They are also encouraged to consider gender issues when they cover topics of particular relevance to women. (Editors of one story on nursing assistants, who are primarily female, did not see that it would have been enhanced by a discussion of gender-pay statistics.)

Only 10 percent of all stories in the global spot check were focused specifically on women. News about gender inequality represented 4 percent of stories.

Mainstream media have taken some note of the report. Articles and interviews thus far have been moved by the BBC World Service, The Guardian and its sister newspaper, The Observer (United Kingdom), The Hindustan Times (India), Inter Press Service (Belgium), The Fiji Times and Pacific Magazine (Hawaii). The organizers say they also expect coverage in Time magazine and South Africa's Sunday Independent, among others. One, of course, is Women's eNews.

Female journalists continue to be assigned to "soft" news subjects, such as entertainment, relationships, food and home. Of all types of news beats, female reporters dominate only two: weather and poverty-housing-welfare, the report said.

When women make news, the report finds they are primarily featured as celebrities or ordinary people, not as figures of authority. Women offer reactions to events; men offer expert opinion about events.

Women are twice as likely to be portrayed as victims as are men. Photo images also reinforce the notion of women as victims. While women are 20 percent of news subjects in stories about violence, they are 27 percent of those who appear in photos on the topic of crime and violence. Meanwhile, the study found that the situations most likely to cause specific harm to women--such as domestic violence--are not widely covered. Stories that challenge stereotypes and that highlight gender inequality are still more likely to be reported by women, although men now produce a larger number of these stories than they have in the past.

The media monitoring project got started in 1994 at a meeting in Bangkok of people who believed that improving women's media know-how and access to information are essential to their participation in civic life. These included staffers with the London-based World Association for Christian Communication; the International Women's Tribune Centre of New York, which assists women's organizations and community groups; and Isis International Manila, a women's information and communication organization for the Asia Pacific region. The first global monitoring project took place in 1995; the second in 2000.

"One always hopes for change, and it's always so much less than one would want," said Margaret Gallagher, author of the latest report. She adds that the monitoring project is important because it "documents, systematically and reliably, the very slow rate of change and the existence of similar patterns around the world."

In other words, this third verse of the song is pretty much the same as the second and first.

Let's hope for breakthrough news to report next time.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism, published by Strata Publishing, Inc. To view the full report, visit www.whomakesthenews.org. To question or comment on this story, e-mail news@boiseweekly.com.

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