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Gender Justice and the Media

Ammu Joseph

It is, of course, important  to recognise at the outset that gender, whether in the media or otherwise, is not exclusively a women’s issue.  The construction of femininity and masculinity – in society and in the media – are closely linked.  Some ways in which men are portrayed in the media place expectations and limitations on them that adversely affect their lives and those of the women and children in their lives, as well as other people and society in general.  Stereotypical portrayals of men are as incompatible with gender equality as stereotypical representations of women.

There are several, inter-related aspects to the topic, gender justice and the media:
• The first and most commonly discussed aspect concerns media content:  the representation of women and men, and coverage of events/issues of particular concern and relevance to both, in media content
• The second relates to people’s access to the media as media professionals  – including and especially, in the current context, their access to decision-making within media organisations
• Then there’s the issue of people’s access to and relationship with the media as citizens and audiences – which includes their right to information and communication
• And, finally, possibly the most neglected aspect of the subject:  the impact on women and men of laws and policies relating to the media and communication
It is, of course, important  to recognise at the outset that gender, whether in the media or otherwise, is not exclusively a women’s issue.  The construction of femininity and masculinity – in society and in the media – are closely linked.  Some ways in which men are portrayed in the media place expectations and limitations on them that adversely affect their lives and those of the women and children in their lives, as well as other people and society in general.  Stereotypical portrayals of men are as incompatible with gender equality as stereotypical representations of women. 

However, the focus here will be on the first aspect mentioned above, relating to media content in general and content of news media in particular, and on women.
Some people may well ask:  why bother about the media?  Are they at all worth worrying and trying to do something about?  The fact is that the mass media today are omnipresent and omnipotent, if not omniscient.  They are increasingly playing the role once played by family, community, religion and formal education:  not only disseminating information and knowledge, but also shaping values and norms, moulding attitudes and behaviour, and influencing the very process of living.
As the late American academic George Gerbner pointed out time and again, the stories the media tell – now virtually around the clock and through multiple channels of communication – “weave the seamless web of the cultural environment that cultivates most of what we think, what we do, and how we conduct our affairs.” 
There is another reason why it is important to keep a watch on the media.  The news media especially have traditionally played a key role in democracy by creating what is known as the “public sphere,” where issues of importance to the public are discussed and debated, and where information essential to citizen participation in national and community life is presented.
The increased commercialisation that is now perceptible in the media make them less able and willing to cultivate and nurture this public sphere, which is indispensable to democratic society because democracy critically depends upon an informed populace making political choices.  For people to make informed political choices, it is clearly important that a wide range of political viewpoints, as well as the interests and concerns of all sections of society – including the least powerful – be represented in the media.
Journalism sets the context for national debates on important current events and thereby affects public perception of issues across the socio-economic and political continuum.  By determining who has a voice in these debates and who is silenced, which issues are discussed and how they are framed, media have the power to maintain the status quo or challenge the dominant order.
Till recently there was little data to support the general impression that women, who constitute at least half the world’s and the average country’s population, are not proportionately or properly represented in the media even today.  The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), the world’s longest-running and most extensive research on gender in news media, has been yielding an increasing amount of data at the international level since 1995.  Although India has participated in all four GMMPs (conducted every five years from 1995 onwards) no national report was produced here until 2010.  Then, for the first time, the Indian data generated by the study was separately analysed and presented in a report highlighting findings within the country. 
A record 108 countries participated in the GMMP 2010, which systematically monitored a cross-section of media on a single, pre-determined day:  10 November 2009.  Volunteers in different parts of India, including Kerala, surveyed a total of 20 daily newspapers, 11 television news bulletins and 5 radio bulletins.  The print media covered included dailies in English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Tamil and Telugu.  The TV sample included private news channels as well as Doordarshan covering English, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam.  Since news is restricted to All India Radio, the survey analysed AIR bulletins in English, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi and Telugu.  Data culled from a total of 862 news stories in nine languages were submitted for analysis. 
The GMMP provides a useful snapshot – nothing more, nothing less – of women’s presence and role in the news media. The latest round reveals that the world reported in the news is still primarily male, with women still significantly under-represented and misrepresented in the media across the globe, although there has been some positive change since the project began 15 years ago.  Among the key findings of the GMMP 2010 are the following:
• Globally less than a quarter (24%) of the people heard or read about in the news is female; three quarters (76%) is male.  In India women constitute only 22% of the news subjects across all topic categories.  Across Asia (represented by 13 countries, including four South Asian nations) the corresponding figure is 20%.
• Globally only 13% of news stories focus centrally on women (i.e., focus specifically on one or more women). In India only 12% of the news stories have women as the central focus. 
• In India women account for only 18% of the subjects in political stories and an abysmally low 10% in stories relating to the economy.  Across Asia, the corresponding figures for women in stories on politics/government is 16% and on the economy 15%.  Interestingly, men dominated even in many stories where women were supposed to be the focus.  So, for example, 60% of news subjects in stories on women in political power and women electoral candidates were men!
• Women seem better represented as news subjects in stories on the environment, nature and pollution (33%);  poverty, housing and social welfare (34%);  education (38%), violent crime (43%); and medicine, health and hygiene (51%).  Stories on gender-based violence, including domestic violence and rape, as well as on trafficking have an equal number of male and female subjects.
• News in all Indian media is dominated by male subjects. But radio emerged particularly weak, with women constituting only 13% of subjects on radio news.  On television women constituted 20% (1/5th) of news subjects. In newspapers women comprised 24% (nearly 1/4th) of news subjects.
• Many news reports continue to use language and images that reinforce gender stereotypes. Globally only 6% of all news stories challenged gender stereotypes.  India was apparently better off, with 9% of stories challenging gender stereotypes.  But nearly two thirds (63%) of the news stories from the Indian media that were analysed reinforced gender stereotypes. 
• Globally only 6% of the news stories highlighted gender equality or inequality. The corresponding Indian figure was marginally lower: 5%.
• Globally only 20% (a fifth) of persons providing expert commentary in news stories is female – representing an improvement of just 3% in five years.  Internationally 19% of spokespersons mentioned in news stories is female, compared to 14% five years ago. In India women constitute an under-whelming proportion of experts/commentators (18 per cent) and spokespersons (13 per cent) featured in the news.  Women tend to appear in the news here primarily as ‘persons on the street’ or as representatives of ‘popular opinion’ (54 per cent).
• The tendency to identify women based on their physical attributes still persists. Globally news stories mention the age of women in the news twice as often as for men in the news. News stories in the international media mention the family status of women in the news almost four times more often they do for men.  In the Indian news media nearly a third (30 per cent) of female news subjects are identified by their family status while only 5 per cent of male news subjects are similarly identified.
So the latest GMMP reveals that both globally and in this country many aspects of news coverage need to change if society is to be realistically and accurately portrayed, and if women are to be proportionately and fairly represented in the media1.   Something is clearly wrong with the state of the media if, when women comprise half or more of the global human population, they constitute less than a quarter of news sources.  
The main reason why this problem persists, despite increased and improved coverage of certain “women’s issues” over the years, is that gender is still not integrated into general news coverage.  As the comprehensive report on GMMP 05 put it, “The absence of a gender angle in stories in the ‘hard’ news topics reflects a blinkered approach to the definition of news and newsworthiness.” Yet it is clearly important for the media – in their vital role as the Fourth Estate, the watchdog of society, defenders of the public interest – to reflect the experiences, concerns and opinions of diverse sections of the population, including the female half of the human race, on the full range of events and issues covered by the media.
For that to happen what is required is gender-sensitive journalism or journalism as if gender matters.  If the media – and journalists – do not recognise the importance of gender as a key lens through which all events and issues must be viewed and examined, we will continue to miss out on telling the whole story. 
As the introduction to the book, “Missing Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters,” points out, “…a gendered lens allows you to gain deeper insight into all issues that we cover as journalists because events, policies, politics, business, etc., impact men and women differently, just as they do the poor and the rich.  Hence, understanding what determines the difference can help us to see dimensions of a story that would otherwise be overlooked.”2  
It is high time we got gender out of the ghetto into which it has routinely been pushed and confined.  It is time to integrate gender into so-called mainstream media coverage instead of continuing to think of it as a "soft," niche issue that can be left to special interest journalists, leaving "real," "serious" journalists to focus on the apparently important, "hard" stuff.
Some years ago, when I was teaching an elective course on “Covering Gender” at a well-known, then-new journalism training institute, I had assigned a student to interview a senior editor specialising in economic affairs about the gender implications of the union budget, which had just been presented in Parliament.  The student returned dejected, having been sent away with the dismissive question:  “What does the budget have to do with gender?”
A few years later, when the then Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, introduced the concept of "gender-budgeting" in Parliament during his presentation of the Union Budget 2005-06, I was sorely tempted to call that editor and remind him of his ill-informed snub.  But, of course, he was – and is – not alone in his ignorance. Even now, more than five years since gender-budgets entered the Parliamentary lexicon, budget analyses rarely highlight the possibly different impact on women and men of policies and programmes outlined and provided for in official budgets.
According to feminist economist Vibhuti Patel, “Most policies and programmes outlined and provided for in official budgets – at the national, state and panchayat levels – impact women in particular ways.   These range from the increasing privatisation of healthcare services to the huge outlays for defence expenditure, from the interest rates on small savings to the number of families covered by anti-poverty schemes, from the prices of agricultural inputs and produce to the incentives and disincentives operating in various industrial sectors.”
Analysing the union budget 2007-08 from a gender perspective, she expressed disappointment over the relatively small amount allocated for ‘Social Security for Unorganised Sector,’ pointing out that 94 per cent of women workers in India toil in that sector of labour. She also decried the non-inclusion of women in the budgetary allocation for “Water Supply and Sanitation” in view of the fact that water critically affects women’s lives, especially in rural areas and among the urban poor.  Another gap she pointed out was the absence of any specific allocation for women from minority communities in the sub-plan for minorities drawn up by the Ministry of Minority Affairs.  Clearly the price of cooking oil is not the only aspect of the budget likely to affect women, and it is important to consider the impact on women of the broader spectrum of issues dealt with in the budget. 
Much is missing even within the traditional, narrow view of politics generally reflected in the media – which appear to unquestioningly accept the false dichotomy between the public-political sphere and the private, supposedly apolitical, realm.  For example, while ordinary women are certainly prominent in photographs and footage of elections – at political rallies, in queues at polling booths, etc. – their views as voters rarely figure anywhere in the coverage. 
Further, although most parties now routinely list “women’s empowerment” in their election manifestoes, they are seldom quizzed about what exactly they mean by that term, let alone what they have done or at least plan to do about it.  Nor are they asked about their policies or plans regarding current gender-related issues, such as the skewed sex ratio, violence against women, scandalously high maternal mortality rates, water supply and sanitation.
It is crucial to recognise that all issues are women’s issues.  The budget has everything to do with gender, as do other aspects of economics, as well as various high profile areas of media coverage such as politics, war, social conflict and disasters.  The stories are out there.  If few of them make it to the mainstream media it is because gender awareness is still missing in most newsrooms. 
In view of the topic assigned to me for this workshop my effort here has been to focus on gender.  However, I must make it clear that I believe it is equally important to look at news and current affairs with many other lenses in order to understand how the many other factors that impact people’s experiences -- such as caste, class, race/ethnicity, religion/community, and so on.  In fact, I think what is known and often professionally derided as “development journalism” would become far more vibrant and central if one could think of a development lens that would enable journalists to assess the likely impact of events, policies, programmes – even scams and scandals – on various disadvantaged sections of society. 
Similarly, it is important to recognise that “women” do not constitute a homogenous group.  While seeking to use a gender lens we need to be conscious of the need to include the experiences and perspectives of women belonging to a variety of social, cultural, economic backgrounds, reflecting the complex composition of society (e.g., class, race/castes/ethnicity, religions, age groups, location [rural/urban, metro/small town, north/south/east/west/north-east, etc.], educational levels, health status [ability/disability], etc.).
Similarly, it is important to make sure that women’s voices are heard on a wide range of topics by seeking to include women as sources of information/opinion in news and current affairs content relating to all kinds of subject areas, including politics and  government, economics and business, conflicts and disasters, science and technology, sports and culture. 
I believe that unless gender is acknowledged as one of several factors that affect people’s experience of almost everything, and accepted as one of the “angles” to be explored while covering anything, the media will continue to tell only part of the story – whatever that story may be.
I would like to end with quotations from two African women which, I believe, effectively sum up the rationale for efforts to ensure gender equality and sensitivity in the media:
“What, in the end, could be more central to free speech than that every segment of society should have a voice?”
- Justice Athalia Molokomme  (Attorney General, Botswana)
“When every voice counts we can stop counting the voices.”
- Colleen Lowe Morna (Executive Director, Gender Links, South Africa).

This article represents part of the presentation on Gender Justice and the Media made by Ammu Joseph at the state-level workshop for journalism students on the theme, Media – Changing Times, Kozhikode, 4-5 May 2012.  Other examples mentioned during the presentation can be found in the chapters by Ammu Joseph in the book, “Missing Half the Story:  Journalism as if Gender Matters.”
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1.  Global, regional and country-wise reports of the GMMP (1995-2010) are available on this website:  “Who Makes the News?” ( )
2.  Missing Half the Story:  Journalism as if Gender Matters,” Kalpana Sharma (ed.), Zubaan Books, 2010; the book, a collaborative venture of five journalists (Rajashri Dasgupta, Ammu Joseph, Sameera Khan, Laxmi Murthy and Kalpana Sharma), is a guide to reporting with a gender lens.