OP-ED / WOMEN AND THE MEDIA
Missing in action
A newly released report reveals that dialogue with and within the media is needed, not just to get gendered issues or
events covered but, more importantly, to promote "a gender vision."
notes that if accuracy and balance are the hallmarks of good journalism, better representation of women is integral to
professionalism in the media.
27 February 2006 -
February 16, 2006 was a routine news day in India. Nothing extraordinary had taken place the previous day: no major disaster, no fresh conflict, no new outbreak of violence or disease, no significant political upheaval, no dramatic boom or crash on the stock market, no extravagant spiritual confluence.
According to the main headlines on the front pages of the Bangalore press that day, the "cartoon cauldron" boiled over in Pakistan, the French president ordered the "toxic ship" Le Clemenceau back to home base, and the new chief minister of Karnataka attempted to settle into his new job and finalise a provisional list of proposed ministerial colleagues. Some papers had a variety of additional stories on the front page, including "Why Maharishi told Beatles to go," "Valentine's 2nd only to Diwali," "Govt. to uncork B'lore red" (wine), "Will India go for the kill today?" (cricket), "Khushboo wants Maxim to pay Rs. 3 cr." and "Wife, paramour get life."
A few women made it to page one: tennis players Sania Mirza and Camille Pin, actresses Khushboo and Preity Zinta, Padmavathi (convicted in the murder case mentioned above), and women delegates photographed with Infosys Chief Mentor N.R. Narayana Murthy during a programme for women in the Information Technology (IT) industry.
Several women also featured on inside pages. In fact, there was an unusually high representation of women on the sports pages, often spilling over onto the front and other pages, thanks to the ongoing Bangalore Open 2006 International Women's Tennis Tournament. An actress who was a spectator at the tournament was also photographed along with a fellow (male) actor. Among others whose pictures appeared in the press that day were a model displaying a necklace of solitaire diamonds at a jewellery exhibition, Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty (under attack by the "moral police" in Tamilnadu) and Hollywood actress Salma Hayak (at a press meet in Mexico City).
The pattern of news coverage, and trends in the representation of women in the news, emerging from this impromptu survey of the Bangalore press on February 16 more or less conform to the findings of a major new international study, the Global Media Monitoring Project 2005 (GMMP 05), released in London the previous day. The third in a series of surveys conducted every five years from 1995, the GMMP 05 was the most extensive international research into gender in news media to date, covering newspapers, television and radio in 76 countries, including India.
Nearly 13,000 news stories were scrutinised by volunteers across the world exactly a year earlier, on February 16, 2005.
According to "Who Makes the News?" - the comprehensive report presenting and analysing the global data thus gathered -- women continue to
be markedly under-represented in the news, comprising only 21 per cent of all news subjects across the world. In other words, while women
constitute over half the world's population, they make up less than a quarter of the people featured in the news. There has been only
marginal improvement in the number of women seen and heard in the news over the past decade: the corresponding figures revealed by the
earlier exercises were 17 per cent in 1995 and 18 per cent in 2000.
When women do make the news it is primarily as "stars" (celebrities, royalty, etc.) or as "ordinary people." Female newsmakers outnumber males in only two occupational categories: home maker and student. They are under-represented even in professional categories where they do have a substantial presence for example, in Rwanda, which has the highest proportion of female politicians in the world (49 per cent), only 13 per cent of politicians in the news are women.
Expert opinion in the news is still overwhelmingly male, with men making up 83 per cent of all experts and 86 per cent of all spokespersons quoted in stories. If women do appear at all, it is generally in their personal capacity, narrating personal experiences or voicing popular opinion. Women's points of view are rarely heard on topics that dominate the news agenda, such as politics and economics. Surprisingly, even in stories that affect women directly and profoundly, such as gender-based violence, it is the male voice that tends to prevail.
Female news subjects are over three times as likely as males to be identified in terms of their family status, even when they are experts or spokespersons. Women are also more than twice as likely as men to be portrayed as victims. Even among women, certain categories such as older women -- are more invisible than others: nearly three quarters of female news subjects are under 50. Yet women are much more likely than men to appear in photographs, especially in stories relating to crime, violence or disaster.
Just ten per cent of all stories focus specifically on women, except in North America where women are central to the news in 20 per cent of stories -- which still amounts to only one in five. Women are rarely central to stories relating to politics (eight per cent) and economics (three per cent), the most high profile areas of the news agenda. Even in topics where the percentage of female news subjects is relatively high, such as education, health, childcare and consumer issues, women seldom feature centrally. As the GMMP 05 report puts it, "With so few women central to the news particularly in stories that dominate the news agenda news content reflects male priorities and perspectives. The absence of a gender angle in stories in the 'hard' news topics reflects a blinkered approach to the definition of news and newsworthiness."
Female news subjects are over three times as likely as males to be identified in terms of their family status, even when they are
experts or spokespersons. Women are also more than twice as likely as men to be portrayed as victims.
Further, news stories are twice as likely to reinforce as to challenge gender stereotypes, although the percentage of stories in both categories is quite low (six and three per cent respectively). News relating to gender disparity is almost non-existent, with only four per cent of stories highlighting equality-related issues, and most of these concentrated in subject areas like human rights, family relations and women's activism, which are viewed as marginal in the overall news agenda. Stories examining events and issues from a gender equality angle are almost completely absent from major areas of news coverage, such as politics (three per cent) and economics (a mere one per cent).
Although the data gathered in India during the GMMP process has not yet been analysed to provide a similar snapshot of gender in the news media here, preliminary figures more or less reflect the global trend for example, the ratio of female to male news subjects is apparently the same (21:79). Interestingly, a larger proportion of women appear to be portrayed as victims in the Indian media 28 per cent, compared to 19 per cent globally.
But even a quick survey of the Bangalore-based English press on the day the GMMP 05 went public here suggests that the
global trends are in many ways reflected in India, too. For example, of the 40 sundry photographs that appeared in The Times of
India that day only 12 were of women. Of those one was of the model displaying a diamond necklace mentioned earlier, two were
generic photos of unidentified women used to illustrate reports on business-related stories, one was of an unidentified teacher and
students at a school function, four were of sportswomen (three tennis players, including Sania Mirza on the front page, participating in
the Bangalore Open tournament, and a badminton player whose photo was used twice once on the front page), and two were of film stars
(in fact Shilpa Shetty's photograph was used twice, once in colour, although the accompanying report was only a 17 centimetre, single
On the same day Vijay Times published 22 photographs in which women appeared. Of these, seven were of tennis star Sania Mirza in various poses and situations (on and off the court), one was of the model with the diamond necklace mentioned above, two were of movie stars (Bollywood and Hollywood), one was of an unidentified actress to illustrate an interview with her male co-actor, another was of business heiress Paris Hilton at a fashion event, one was of the woman convicted of murder mentioned above, another of a dancer, two were of badminton players and one of Camille Pin, the French tennis player who beat the Indian favourite. A photograph of a well-known and highly articulate political leader accompanying a woman who had survived a violent assault appeared without any report on what was obviously a horrific case involving a brutal attack on a rural woman who had dared to complain of rape.
The New Indian Express carried four photographs of women: a film star at the tennis tournament (along with a male colleague), a senior bureaucrat who had just signed a business agreement with a public sector company but whose identity was left to the imagination since there were two people in the picture and no caption, and the political leader with the woman survivor mentioned above (again used without a report). Of the eight photographs featuring women in The Hindu, three were of Sania Mirza, two were group pictures of students in school events, one was of an unidentified woman at a function to flag off a new train, and one was a tiny picture in the sports section of a female athlete who had just broken a national record. In addition, there was a large photograph on the op-ed page of the bereaved wife and daughter of a farmer who had committed suicide in Vidharbha, accompanying an article on the growing number of such suicides in the area, especially among male farmers. The main section of The Asian Age had just one photograph of a woman: a movie star at a corporate event. The supplement had a photograph of a dejected Sania Mirza and women also featured in two film-related photographs as well as a group photograph of cricketer Irfan Pathan with Pakistan-based relatives in Lahore.
Two pages in Deccan Herald with a preponderance of women bear a closer look. Page 8 (National) had four
photographs, all featuring women: the activist politician with the woman mentioned above (again minus a report), an actress taking legal
action against a French magazine for an offensive morphed photograph, another actress photographed in connection with a television
programme, and an unidentified woman accompanied by a child looking at a rare variety of lemons at a horticultural exhibition. Page 14
(Foreign) also had four photographs, all again featuring women. The only news photograph among these showed a Bangladeshi policewoman
arresting a woman activist of the main Opposition party during a general strike in Dhaka, although the accompanying report did not quote
any party workers, let alone the women among them. The other three pictures were from the world of global entertainment: an actress
cast in the role of an action hero, members of a band called Pussycat Dolls at an MTV show in New York, and a Hollywood star and her
famous beau kissing in Rome.
Going back to page 8, two reports on gender-related issues published there illustrate the point made in "Who makes the news?" that women are often not heard even in stories that directly involve and affect them. The first, datelined Dehra Dun and headlined "Rapist awarded 'shoe penalty'," concerned an 18-year-old Dalit girl in Uttaranchal who was reportedly kidnapped at gunpoint and repeatedly raped and tortured by a known criminal because she refused to marry him. The head of the village did not report the crime to the police and advised the victim's father not to; he obviously thought justice would be done if the accused paid Rs. 21,000 as compensation to the girl and submitted to five beatings with a shoe. The victim's father turned for help to the state Women's Commission, which in turn registered the case with the police. The only person quoted in the story was the chairperson of the Commission, who is presumably a woman although the name (Santosh Chauhan) leaves room for doubt.
The other report, datelined Jaipur and headlined "Paramour asked to strip, lift 60 kg," was about the punishment meted out by a caste panchayat in an elopement case. When the absconding couple was brought back to the village, the woman was "handed over" to her original husband (who had brought the matter to the attention of the "mahapanchayat") and the man was asked to pay a fine of Rs. 11,000 in addition to taking off his clothes and holding an iron piece weighing about 60 kgs. on his head for almost two hours, apparently as a gesture of penance. He was also asked to swear that the woman he had eloped with was his sacred "god sister." Again, the only person quoted in the story was the local superintendent of police, a man.
It is possible that these rural stories were not on-the-spot reports by the journalists concerned and that they may not have had access to the women at the centre of both or, for that matter, other women in the concerned villages. However, no such excuse applies to reporters who covered the programme for women in IT held in Bangalore or for the editors who decided how to play and place that story in the various papers.
All the reports were entirely based on the keynote speech by Narayana Murthy, although approximately 100 women delegates from a range of IT companies in the city attended the event and it ended with a group discussion (presumably involving women participants) on how to create women leaders in the industry. There was no information on the Infosys Women's Inclusivity Network other than the fact that the meeting was organised under its banner, even though this was obviously its first public venture. Nor were any of its members interviewed about the genesis of the network, its raison d'etre or its plans for the future. And none of the participants were asked for their opinions on Murthy's proposals regarding flexible work policies to enable women to spend time with their families, especially children, and thereby prevent them from dropping out of work.
Similarly a report in Vijay Times on trafficking in women was entirely based on information and comments from a (male) police officer. And only The Hindu and Deccan Herald carried editorials on the day-old order of the Supreme Court of India calling for the mandatory registration of all marriages irrespective of religion. While the former described it as a breakthrough that would "aid the dismantling of the unhealthy social edifices of child marriage and the exploitation of married women," the latter identified it as a welcome step towards "protecting the rights of married women."
As this snapshot of a cross-section of the Indian press in English reveals, it is true that women are no longer invisible in the media here. They may even be audible on occasion. However, it is also clear that certain categories of women, especially those perceived as glamorous, receive disproportionate media attention while others who are saying or doing equally or more important things in a variety of fields and locations are still either absent or silent. Similarly, it is true that many events and issues of particular concern to women do receive coverage in the Indian media. But news reports on them seldom reflect information or insight about their gendered nature or implications and rarely contribute to better public understanding of the subject.
Analytical pieces in the comment and features pages and in the rare reflective programmes on television are frequently more perceptive and educative but with reportage forming the bulk of media content the missing links there demand serious editorial attention.
The GMMP could serve as a tool for change, with the findings used to promote dialogue with and within the media - not
just to get certain issues or events covered but, more importantly, to promote what the people behind it call "a gender vision." The
newly released report includes suggestions about how this can be done. Indeed, the ongoing global "Who Makes the News" campaign (16
February-8 March) seeks to engage the media in a dialogue that will lead to urgent, substantive action to ensure that women and men are
represented in a more fair and balanced manner. According to Gallagher, who was a consultant to the project and authored the report,
"... it is not impossible to produce news stories that are gender sensitive. It just means thinking more creatively about the topic at
hand who it concerns, who should be included in the coverage, in what way and for what purposes. This is what all good journalism
aspires to. In the final analysis, fair gender portrayal must be a professional criterion like any other - balance, diversity, clarity,
and so on in the search for high-quality journalism."