Don’t get me wrong, I love journalism. Even though I opted not to make it my full-time career, I’ve been writing for one or more publications for the past 20 years. For the love of journalism, I slept on the dirty couch of my college newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, waiting for an editor to approve my state and national desk stories. And I often write fondly about my professors at UNC’s notorious “J” school. The overwhelming male faculty prided themselves on journalistic style and integrity (for the most part). I learned a lot at the “J” school; unfortunately, writing stories in a way that doesn’t marginalize women wasn’t one of them. I recall spending time addressing racial bias in college, it took more than a decade of freelancing before I stumbled upon writings like the International Federation of Journalists’ 2009 manifesto, and that’s what changed my writing.
“One of the greatest challenges facing journalists, both men and women, is to resist the culture of casual stereotype in our everyday work. That is no easy task when media are full of images and clichés about women and girls. Many are relatively harmless, but some, often the most powerful, portray women as objects of male attention – the glamorous sex kitten, the sainted mother, the devious witch, the hard-faced corporate and political climber. In every region and culture there are fixed images, deeply entrenched prejudices and biased reflexes that pose challenges to journalists and media. This booklet urges us to do more to confront these distortions in our newsrooms and in our unions.” – International Federation of Journalists
If there was any question before these past few years of political coverage, now more than ever, we know that the foundations of our democracy rely on many freedoms including the right to an independent and accurate press. As The Washington Post’s newly adopted mantra explains: “democracy dies in darkness”. As Women AdvaNCe explores equity for women, I believe the media should be as accountable as the politicians they cover.
First, I had to realize I don’t get a pass for being a woman. According to the IFJ, in many countries women are strongly represented but that doesn’t always make a difference. After reviewing a collection of news stories submitted over the years, I was guilty. Looking back, I cringe at the early use of words like “giddy” and “head-strong” to describe the women I interviewed or wrote about.
The American media are still predominately male dominated when it comes to top positions. Women aren’t merely marginalized in the news in content but also the jobs they do and in the opportunities they have to make their way in the profession. “It’s still a man’s world,” proclaimed a national newspaper journalism survey released by the campaigning group, Women in Journalism in 2011. “The study found that 74 percent of news journalists on the nationals are men and that men also dominate political and business journalism. Somewhat less surprisingly, just 3 percent of sports journalists are women.”
Rowenna Davis, who led the research, said: “These results raise serious questions about the meritocracy of our national press,” telling The Guardian that media contributes a huge amount to our democracy by holding others accountable, but it should not be beyond that scrutiny itself. “With such gaping under-representation in hard news, business and politics, we have to question whether the absence of women is affecting the content and slant of our news.”
Being the change you hope to see…
There is hope for an industry that so desperately wants to be the magnifying glass for the American conscious. What do media outlets care about the most? YOU! The consumer speaks to the vanity of why most of us got in the business and readership/viewership/subscribers translate to the almighty advertising dollar. So here is what you can do:
- Challenge headlines/on-air descriptions:
Email reporters to challenge their biased descriptions of women. If they don’t respond, consider taking the conversation to the comments-below section of online stories and/or video. Better yet, tell them how you feel about their descriptions on Twitter. Calling out advertisers for a media source (particularly if it’s a brand you use or wouldn’t jive with marginalizing statements) is likely to get a response. Share your opinions through op-eds/letters to the editor.
- Support women producers/directors/reporters/anchors. In my case I know that women are often marginalized in newsrooms because men are being heralded as media power brokers. Men hold 97 percent of the clout positions in mainstream media, according to the New York−based Women’s Media Center. The last few freelance assignments I signed up for asked about social media following (but not for a writing sample). I even had one potential editor tell me I should have a larger following, because in his words, “I’m cute.”
- Support women bloggers/thought leaders/experts. Women are putting out a lot of strong content out there. Read it! Share it! Follow it! Promote it! The world of blogging is an area for women’s voices—and for uncontrolled stereotyping. Thankfully New Media types like Women Advance are giving a collective voice to women.
I have been lucky to have had positive experiences with newsrooms across the state and for the most part I believe journalists still have value for the only institution (outside of government) with constitutional protection. But the media’s role in our live is too important. The magnifying glass can’t just examine other institutions without continuously challenging itself to do a better job of hiring, promoting and representing women. And I for one am willing to say call myself out.
Antionette Kerr began covering nonprofits as a contributing journalist and columnist over 20 years ago through small publications affiliated with The New York Times, GateHouse Media and Halifax Media along with several regional magazines. Learn more about Antionette and her writing adventures at thewritefolks.net.