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Women Are Half of All Bloggers—But Media Aren’t Noticing

August 1, 2007

If you get your news from, well, the news media, you can be forgiven if you didn’t know that nearly 800 women gathered in Chicago last weekend for the third annual convention of BlogHer, an online community of more than 13,000 blogging women diverse in age, ethnicity and political persuasion. According to a search of the Nexis news database, only three Chicago newspapers covered the conference, as if this national assemblage of women writers and videographers were simply a local story. Not one national network or cable news broadcast deigned to mention it. Compare that to the glut of coverage bestowed on YearlyKos, a conference for left-leaning bloggers made popular by the blustering A-list boys of the “netroots.” In the month leading up to Kos’s gathering this coming weekend, also in Chicago, the conference’s perceived political power has been discussed in print and broadcast outlets from regional newspapers such as the Chattanooga Times Free Press and the Austin American Statesman to major dailies such as the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, and debated on MSNBC, ABC, Fox News, PBS and, for the satirically inclined, The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Despite Pew research reporting that women are actually 50% of all people who blog, corporate journalists and independent bloggers alike often prefer to fall back on the hand-wringing question, “Where are the women bloggers?” They’d know the answer if they took the time to seek us out as news sources, read our commentaries or cover events such as BlogHer. If many believe that blogging is a primarily male sport, it is partially because old-school gender disparities in resource allocation, power and popularity long entrenched in traditional news media are replicating themselves online. In the blogosphere, young men—mostly white and mostly economically comfortable—link to, write about, promote and fund their buddies’ blogs; and corporate media play star-makers, quoting, profiling and featuring the punditry of this New Boys Network. As is hardly surprising to those of us who monitor media representations of women, women who blog (especially those who write about feminist issues) are off the radar. Yet, in massive numbers, women are using new media tools including blogs, podcasts, vlogs (video blogs), and other information communication technologies (ICTs) as a means of self-expression (craft bloggers), connection to community (mommy bloggers), political organizing (the “netroots”), and citizen journalism. They’re also going online to monitor the media, as dozens of women do every day on WIMN’s Voices, the group blog of Women In Media & News, the media analysis, education and advocacy organization I direct. At BlogHer 2007, young anti-corporate activists and suburban grandmothers, GOP operatives and Democratic pollsters, DIY purse-makers and tenured academics learned new tech skills, built professional and social networks and, of course, partied together. By the end of the weekend, they chose Global Health as a focal point for collective organizing as part of the BlogHers Act initiative, designed to leverage the power of women’s blogs to make a positive impact on one major issue each year. As a speaker in a workshop about strategies to make politicians and the press address women voters’ questions throughout Election ’08, I offered the recent CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate as a case study of the possibilities—and the pitfalls—of using new media to alter standard corporate media scripts. The partnership, hyped as a revolutionary collaboration between traditional and citizen journalism, offered a unique opportunity for individual Americans to shape media dialog, but also exemplified the limitations of such engagement as corporate media remain the gatekeepers of public debate. One telling difference between this “real people ask the questions” debate and the usually cozy confabs between politicians and Beltway journalists was illustrated in a question on energy policy recorded by independent documentarian Stephanie Mackley. She addressed the candidates from her bathroom, pointing to the compact fluorescent light bulbs she uses there to “decrease my personal energy use… But my question for you is, how is the United States going to decrease its energy consumption in the first place? In other words, how will your policies influence Americans rather than just using special light bulbs?” It was a brilliant moment. By asking about broad policy proposals rather than superficial band-aid approaches to environmental crises, Mackley pierced through the usual government—and media—spin that attempts to frame collective problems as if they are caused, and can be solved, by individuals rather than by wide scale societal responses. Yet when she finished speaking, CNN’s Anderson Cooper watered down Mackley’s very clear emphasis on policy by rephrasing her question, asking the candidates, “How do you get Americans to conserve?” Then, when Senator Chris Dodd talked about levying a corporate carbon tax on polluters, demanding energy efficient auto standards and moving away from fossil fuels as steps to quell global warming, Cooper rebutted with, “The question was about personal sacrifice.” No, actually, it wasn’t—not by a long shot. The issue of collective, societal responsibility was obfuscated, and this time the politicians didn’t have to bury political policy and corporate responsibility under the sheen of personal choice; CNN’s silver-haired golden boy did it for them. Worse yet, during a campaign in which a woman is for the first time considered the front-runner for a major party’s presidential nomination, only 11 of the 39 questions CNN selected were asked by women. Not surprisingly, issues affecting women’s economic, social, sexual, reproductive and political rights were ignored or given short shrift. The fact that YouTube and CNN would bill their debate as a bold new step for participatory democracy yet would choose not to balance the participation of women and men indicates the need for media accountability in this brave new world of online communication, despite the much-ballyhooed gender equity it was supposed to bring. As Cooper’s reframing of Mackley’s question—and CNN’s choice to allow men to ask 70% of all questions—demonstrates, the Internet will not “liberate us” from sexist, racist or otherwise commercially compromised media. After all, the top 10 most popular news websites include most of the same corporate outlets that have marginalized and misrepresented women for decades: NYTimes.com, CNN.com, FoxNews.com, and their competitors. This is why, as I told BlogHer conference participants, we still need to invest time, energy and resources into long-term strategies for improving mainstream media content, production and policy. There is no simple, “five minutes a day” way, no Improving Election Coverage for Dummies booklet, to transforming the media. But as bloggers and as activists, we can use the Internet and ICTs as key components of a larger, multi-layered strategy for media justice. To preserve our democracy and to advance women’s rights, our agenda must include critical content analysis, media literacy, strategic communications, support of independent, community and ethnic media and—as blogger Elizabeth Edwards declared during her closing keynote for the conference—media policy reforms such as reversing the anti-democratic effects of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and fighting for Net Neutrality. For more information, see Stephanie Mackley’s follow-up video blog critiquing her experience as part of the CNN/YOUTube debate; and WIMN asks Elizabeth Edwards about media policy reform.

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