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Women Increasingly Included In News Stories, But Still Rarely Telling Them

March 4, 2010

I went to a panel on Tuesday afternoon dedicated to the increasingly widespread and meticulous Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) which has, since 1995, produced volunteer-driven international research on women's representation in news media. The project is gigantic, and they only do it every five years, so it was a real honor to be present – at the UN Millennium Plaza Hotel, of all internationally appropriate venues – for the preliminary unveiling of their findings from fall 2009. Drawing from 130 countries – the number has nearly doubled in the last 15 years – volunteers witness and report on gender representation in television, radio, and print news over the course of one day. The findings presented by Lavinia Mohr, Director of Programmes at the World Association for Christian Communication, were only preliminary, with data 42 countries.  Mohr highlighted that this means we shouldn't take what she presented as fact, but that it was a good indicator of expected trends. The first pattern Lohr pointed out was the variance between mediums; television consistently covers women the most, while radio consistently covers them the least. Coverage also varied widely by topic; Science and Health covered women the most, at an increase of 37% from 22% in 2005. This is dandy, but Mohr pointed out that as a topic,  Science and Health receives the least amount of coverage overall. But hey!  Women have achieved near parity as givers of public opinion. (In the GMMP's language, a "giver of public opinion" means a person interviewed by news media who is meant to represent popular opinion.)  Not only is this the first time parity has been (almost) achieved for women as subjects, but five years ago men outnumbered women two to one in this category. However (this was a reining conjunction at the panel) experts in news media are still only 19% female, and spokespersons only 18%. (GMMP defines "experts" as subjects whose additional information or comment is based on specialist experience.)  And while 50% of stories are presented by women (as anchors or other such news-curators), just 34% are reported by women. As Lohr pointed out, women's reporting isn't just reflected in the face behind the microphone or the name in the byline; GMMP found that female reporters are more likely to include female subjects than their male counterparts, and stories by female reporters are almost twice as likely to challenge gender stereotypes as stories by men. Still, she said, almost half of news stories reinforce gender stereotypes (as an example, Lohr showed the cover of a Danish newspaper headlining "Michelle Obama's Love Tips.") Wincing at his introduction as a "devil's advocate," co-panelist and InterPress Service Editor in Chief Sanjay Suri offered not so much an opposing perspective but a different background, coming directly from the news room. "Most of the trouble around the world is caused by men," he said, "and trouble is news."  Reviewing biggest stories of the last year, including terrorism and financial security, he said, the villains are by and large men, so that's who we're going to see on front pages and featured on the news.  "That's the fashion in journalism today," he said, "and perhaps that should change," although he seemed less than optimistic. The room, filled with journalists from Kenya, Ghana, Jordan and beyond, asked the panel and themselves questions about how to correct the gross imbalance in representation. Should a minimum number of gender sensitive stories be instituted at every media outlet? Should databases of women experts (like WMC's SheSource) be required? After all, as a reporter reacting to Suri pointed out, is giving men the majority of coverage, even for bad behavior, akin to "a school classroom where the troublemaker gets all the attention"? Although the hunger for answers bordered on ravenous, the values and hopes of the room were clearly in sync. Concluding her presentation, Mohr offered a quote from Aidan White, General Secretary of The International Federation of Journalists: "Fair gender portrayal is a professional and ethical aspiration similar to respect for accuracy, fairness and honesty." Amen.