Judging from the responses to the research conducted by New Matilda's Women in the Media project, it seems few are surprised by evidence showing that journalism is still dominated by men. Could this be because, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the decades of hard earned progress, the small number of women in positions of power no longer seems a pressing matter?
Is it possible that this gender distribution is so commonplace that we’ve stopped noticing? And if gender is no predictor of viewpoint anyway (as has been suggested), then why does this inequality matter?
I’ve come to consider these questions through my work researching media representations of violence against women. This work is based on research which shows that rigid gender roles and weak support for gender equality are central to the persistence of violence against women as a social problem – a problem so widespread that up to 70 per cent of women globally experience gender-based violence in their lifetime.
VicHealth has shown that among men, the most common predictor of the use of violence against women is their agreement with sexist, patriarchal, and/or sexually hostile attitudes. So based on this research it is clear that seeking gender equity in the media, where ideas are disseminated and reinforced, is integral to the prevention of violence against women.
In the research I’ve undertaken with Professor Jenny Morgan, we’ve found that, in spite of the importance of attitudes towards gender equity in the ongoing issue of violence against women, issues of gender are rarely discussed in the reporting.
Through our analysis of 1739 mainstream print news articles covering violence against women, we found that most reports simply give the who, what, when and where of the case, with few articles identifying the violence as gender-based. Most of the articles in our sample (83 per cent) were based on an incident or event, which means they included little discussion or analysis.
The lack of context in the reporting of violence against women tended to make the violence appear only as an individual problem (a family or relationship problem) rather than also being part of a broader social problem. One consequence of individualising the issue is that it tends to erase gender from discussions of the dynamics of violence against women, even though attitudes towards gender play a central role in the ongoing problem.
While it’s tempting to suggest journalists simply incorporate more depth in reporting of the issue (this would certainly be ideal), there are a number of pressures and limitations which affect the final published product (for example the limitations imposed by Australian laws on contempt of court).
Considering this, we found some key areas where coverage could easily de-individualise the issue and label the violence as gender-based. These areas are the inclusion of information about victim or perpetrator services (such as telephone numbers and websites), and the use of violence against women prevention advocates, experts and social workers as sources for stories.
In our sample, we found that only 2 per cent of articles included information about services, and only 6 per cent used sources working in the field of violence against women. By incorporating these elements more frequently, news coverage can offer increased context and information about violence against women in a way that recognises it as a gender-based social problem, rather than just an individualised one.
I agree with those who say that gender is not a predictor of viewpoint. In terms of the representation of violence against women, I believe the issue can, and often is, covered accurately regardless of the author’s gender.
So why then does uneven gender distribution in newsrooms and boardrooms matter? The findings of the Women in the Media project matter because they say a lot about the balance of gender in mainstream media (findings paralleled around the world), and have broader implications for the state of gender equity in Australia.
While gender may not necessarily be a predictor of viewpoint, gender distribution can certainly reinforce ideas about gender roles, whose role it is to speak, and whose role it is to speak about what.
Remembering the link between attitudes towards gender equity and the ongoing prevalence of violence against women – a problem so common that more one in three women in Australia have experienced physical violence at the hands of a partner or ex-partner – it’s important that we care about gender inequity wherever it occurs.
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