Workshop on Media and Gender
GENDER SENSITIVITY IN NEWS REPORTING
A paper presented in a workshop by the UP-CMC Department of Journalism in coordination with the UP Center for Women’s Studies
A CHED Center of Excellence in Communication Arts, Oct. 23-29, 2005
It was as scene that I now barely recognize: a newsroom with men sitting around the news desk. A male editor calling the shots while young women typed out the stories being dictated by male reporters through the phone. A male photographer who would take every opportunity to brush his hand against the women. And a male copy editor who would taunt young female reporters with a phrase that he thought was witty: “So, you were caught with your panties down”.
In the field, the same young female reporters would be startled to suddenly find on their shoulders or waists the hands of not-so-young, not-so-good-looking but very much married male reporters “welcoming” them to the beat. Avoiding such hands was trickier than playing the childhood game of patintero.
But I still had same reason to be thankful; while the editors of my newspaper then were men, the owner was a woman, a literary giant who never hesitated to say what was on her mind. She would demand that stories about raids on prostitution dens include not just the prostituted women but the customers as well. Alas, hers was a voice in the wildness.
That was more than 20 years ago. The last time I saw the witty copy editor, he was applying for a job in the newspaper where I was working as managing editor. It was perhaps his turn to be startled. Around the news desk were women: the editor in chief, the managing editor, the news editor, the local news editor and even the opinion page editor. About the only men in the newsroom early that afternoon were the copy boy who was running about as he obeyed the orders being barked out by the editor in chief, and a copy editor who was unabashedly, unrepentantly gay. Perhaps it was too much for the copy editor from my newspaper of 20 years ago because he did not stay around too long. It seemed that he did not pursue his application.
Things have indeed changed somewhat. In newsroom across the world and in beats everywhere, women have become more visible. On television, the most popular anchorpersons now include women. (Allowing for the possibility that all ranks in the newsroom can now be occupied by women, we do not even call the newsroom gofer a “copy boy” anymore, but a “copy monitor.”
But why should it be significant that women occupy more positions in journalism, especially those that involve decision-making? It is so because not only should media reflect the changes that have taken place in our time but also those changes that ought to take place. These changes include greater representation of the welfare and interests of sectors or groups that have long been ignored and therefore left at a disadvantage, among them women. For media, it means having more stories that faithfully reflect the world’s realities and these include the realities confronting half of its population. For practitioners in media, equality begins in the newsroom.
In many parts of the world, despite the apparent increase in women’s visibility in media, progress seems to be slow and uneven. A study by the International Federation of Journalists (Nieman Reports/ Winter 2001) showed that women journalists in the Americas accounted for 41 percent of the total number of journalists; in Europe, 40 percent; in Africa, 25 percent; and in Asia-Pacific, 12 percent.
The numbers drop down dramatically when the proportion of women in decision-making positions is considered. In the Americas, women journalists make up five percent of decision-makers; in Europe, three percent; in Africa, 1.4 percent; and in Asia-Pacific, 0.1 percent.
According to Bettina Peters who wrote about the report, female journalists still have to overcome many barriers if they want to reach their full potential in the industry. Across the world, these barriers include:
1. Stereotypes: cultural attitudes that expect women to be subordinate and subservient, as well as the negative attitudes toward women journalists.
2. Employment conditions: lack of equal pay, lack of access to further training, lack of fair promotion procedures, lack of access of decision-making positions, sexual harassment, age discrimination, and job segregation.
3. Social and personal obstacles: conflicting family and career demands, lack of support facilities, and lack of self-esteem.
Peters also points out a fact that women journalists know only too well: ” The stories of women journalists who make it to the top are often ones of personal struggle and sacrifice.”
Teresita Hermano and Anna Turley in their article, “Who Makes the News?” (Nieman Reports/ Winter 2001), point out that while there have been “immense changes” in women’s participation in media in certain parts of the world, women still make up just 18 percent of the news subjects in the year 2000. It was a mere one percent increase over the figure five years before that when the Global Media Monitoring Project was first undertaken by the World Association for Christian Communications. Another monitor is being undertaken this year by the same group.
With the unimpressive figures that have so far been shown in Asia in terms of the number of women in journalism, it would be interesting to find out how the Philippines specifically fares in the matter of reporting on women. To date, at least two of the major broadsheets in the country have women editors in chief (the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Tribune) . Years before that, there were more (The Manila Standard and Today, before merging into The Manila Standard Today, and The Manila Times). Would there be a difference in the mix of stories and the way that these stories are written if women were at the helm of a media organization?
The common criticism of women’s groups is that women are often portrayed in the media in stereotypical roles. Even those stories that are apparently meant to sympathize with women tend to portray them as victims, with little to say about how they are trying to deal with their problems. Front-page stories are usually about politicians and only a few are about women (Would this be true for the Philippines which has a woman president?)
Yet, despite the importance of being given to the need for more women in decision-making positions, women journalists themselves say that such a change would not automatically spell a difference in the way that stories are reported. Having come into an environment where men used to dominate, not a few women journalists have adopted the mind-set of their male counterparts. In a report prepared for the UNESCO by Theodora Ziamou (“Women Make the News: A Crack in the Glass Ceiling?”, a Malaysian journalist was quoted as saying, ” It’s a good idea, having women in charge of the newsroom. But I don’t thick that it would make such difference. It would if we were all, men and women, gender sensitized. Sad to say, not many of us are.”
And so it is therefore true that men—as well as women—in media need gender-sensitizing.
The effort can perhaps be helped by remembering some of the tools of our trade. One such journalist did this by employing the five Ws and H of news writing (“Gender Sensitive Reporting”) For example:
x WHAT? The need to be more aware of gender issues and to incorporate this awareness in the way a story is written and reported.
x WHO? You, the journalist.
x WHERE? At the newsroom and on the beat.
x WHEN? Always.
x HOW? By being aware of one’s language, being open-minded and fair, and through careful selection and writing of the stories.
x WHY? Because professionalism and good sense require it.
Asking ourselves certain questions can also help in avoiding gender insensitivity, such as:
Who are the sources of the reports?
– How many sources are government and corporate officials?
– How many belong to progressive, public interest groups?
– How many sources are women?
– How many sources are from minority groups?
From whose point of view is the news reported?
– Whose interest does the report serve?
– Does this interest coincide with that of the government?
– Does it coincide with those of corporate entities?
– Is the report in the public’s interest? Which public?
– Are there double standards in the news story?
Are stereotypes used in the story?
– How is one group or individual portrayed in the story?
– Is this group or individual associated with certain characteristics?
Is loaded language used?
– Is the language objective enough to allow the readers to form their own opinions?
Is the story put in context so readers can form their own opinions?
Do the contents of the story match the headline or title?
Does the titles of the story points to possible gender bias? (Example: Tomboy kills employer)
Media can be notorious in strengthening stereotypes. In the example given above, the stereotype of “tomboys” as aggressive and violent persons is strengthened by the headline and the story itself even though the sexual orientation of the person involved had nothing to do with the crime.
Journalists also tend to whip up interest in a story by titillating the reader. For example: “Addicts rape pretty coed.” It was as if being pretty was an invitation to get raped.
In the end, journalists should be gender-sensitive because they are journalists. As put forth by Libby Brookes in The Guardian (March 8, 2000), “Men and women are not so fundamentally different as to choose entirely conflicting agendas – often it is about sensitivity rather than gender, an occasional shift of emphasis rather than a complete change of subject.”