What Happens When Women Aren't In The Frame


Were you one of the people who sceptically dismissed the Mal Brough menu as a hoax, because you simply couldn’t believe something that misogynist could have been produced by anyone?

Did you think you’d heard the worst in Australian sexist political commentary when you listened to that rancid Howard Sattler interview? Until you saw Piers Akerman go there again on the ABC’s Insider’s program yesterday.

Did you think the Australian military learned the lessons of Skypegate? Until you heard about the Army’s investigation into allegations a self-styled “Jedi Council” using military networks to distribute pornographic images they’d produced during encounters with unsuspecting women.

Did you cheer for equality when Moya Dodd became the first Australian to be appointed to the FIFA Executive Committee? Until the Socceroos coach joked to journalists that women should shut up in public.

If the last week didn’t convince you that sexism remains deeply and damagingly embedded in our society, culture and politics, it’s likely that nothing will.

My own response to these convergent, gendered scandals was visceral. I've never experienced such open hostility towards women in Australia. It made me incandescently angry.

All of these scandals lit up public conversation via the conduits of traditional or social media. The mainstream media, and the many citizens who used social media platforms to report on a brewing scandal or disseminate content, both reflected and fuelled the last week’s gender debates.

But in the Australian print media, despite the fact that we have a female Governor General and a Female Prime Minister, women are barely seen and mostly unheard. Data collected from nine national, capital city and regional newspapers on 4 March 2013, by the Women in the Media Project, confirms as much. Our key findings published last week were:

So what? A number of prominent journalists retorted.

In my current research focus (the intersection of social media and professional journalism) I am often exposed to the view that what we journalism academics call “media effects”, “framing theory” and “media representation” are really no longer relevant in such a fragmented and highly atomised mediasphere, where everyone has the means to produce and distribute news, and peer networks are viewed as more trustworthy than traditional media.

There is certainly some truth in this assertion. And it’s also true that much research on media effects (there’s a century’s worth to contend with, if you’re keen) is academically contentious.

Essentially, these theories contend that the ways in which journalists “frame” (or shape) stories effects the “reader’s” understanding of, and attitudes towards, the issues and individuals being reported. Framing is a process that involves journalists deciding what facts to emphasise and what to leave out; which sources to approach and what questions to ask them; what sources to quote and the way in which to order those quotes; and what language and tone to adopt. This process of selection and presentation is assumed to also produce broader social and political impacts.

While the mainstream media can’t be held solely responsible for the construction of identity, nor blamed entirely for societal attitudes (yes, the media can also be regarded simply as conduits for very problematic social standards and gutter politics), they are said to “provide the lens through which reality is perceived”, to quote Henry Francis.

For example, in my own research about Australian Muslim women’s lived experience of media-misrepresentation (see, for example, my chapter in the 2010 Melbourne University Press book Islam and the Australian News Media), the women I interviewed spoke directly of the effect of mainstream media coverage on their emotional/psychological well-being and even their physical safety.

One of the women told me, “[The media coverage] is very distressing … It makes me afraid to show my Muslim identity publicly.  Absolutely [I] feel vilified and discriminated against”. Another woman said she believed media stereotyping was to blame for the abuse she had experienced on the streets: “I was abused when I went out for a walk”. And another of my research participants said, “Sometimes I feel in danger because of the bad TV. That’s where they get their information”.

Earlier, Scott Poynting argued that political opportunism and sensationalist headlines lead to, and give license to, racist attacks in shops, streets and workplaces. He identified a dramatic upsurge in such attacks on Muslims after the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks as evidence. This research led the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to call for urgent action to address the problem in 2003.

A significant number of the women I interviewed described deliberately tuning out of mainstream media and turning to alternative or community media, social networks and blogs as a means of avoiding the impact of constant negative media stereotyping. Interestingly, most said mainstream reporting was still a cause for concern.

However, there is more recently published research that confirms that traditional media power continues to play a fundamentally important role in Australia, not just in terms of framing debates, or in driving political strategies, but also in the formation of public policy.

Following a three-year study of the nexus involving mainstream media, government bureaucrats and Indigenous policy, academics Kerry McCallum and Lisa Waller last year published research in an Australian Research Council-funded report (pdf) that found:

“(There is) a significant manifestation of media power in the policymaking process … Our research concludes that the way Indigenous issues are portrayed in mainstream news media does impact on the way Indigenous affairs policies are developed, communicated and implemented.”

Their findings, which included the revelation that The Australian newspaper was particularly influential on Indigenous policy formation, were based on in-depth interviews with bureaucrats in the Northern Territory and Canberra.

It is reasonable to conclude that, even in this social media age, sexism and misogyny in the mainstream media have a potentially significant impact on women as individuals, on society more broadly, on political discourses, and even on gender policy.

From research undertaken by the Women in the Media team (which is in the process of being prepared for peer review publication) it is also relevant to note that the gender of a story’s author does appear to have an impact on the gender of the sources they select. As we reported last week, when female bylined stories are examined for sources, almost twice the number of female sources is identifiable when compared to male bylined stories.

We pointed out that this may also reflect the higher concentration of women reporting on “softer” news rounds (like entertainment and community news). These rounds are often less prominently covered than politics and economics, for example, which remain heavily male-dominated – both in terms of reporters and sources. It is worth repeating that only 34 per cent of political sources quoted in the newspapers examined by the project were female, and that a third of those quotes belonged to Julia Gillard. Imagine the picture if the number one political office holder in the land were male?

A society that views itself through a mainstream media lens that reinforces portrayals of women as less powerful, less significant, less respected and less visible than men risks perpetuating sexist stereotypes and further marginalising women. Such a society may also license appalling gender-based attacks on, say, a country’s female Prime Minister.

My friend and fellow academic Shakira Hussein has theorised that Muslim women are subject to a “double bind affect”, meaning that they feel compelled to defend Muslim men, regardless of chauvinism or worse, because they're so vilified by the media.

I now realise that's precisely how I feel about Julia Gillard. I'm strongly critical of some of her more populist policy positions (such as “border protection” and cuts to single mothers’ benefits) but the atrocious, gender-based vilification of the Prime Minister by significant sections of Australian media and society, which targets her body and sex life, rather than her ideas and policies, compels me to defend her as a woman.

Such an effect is counter-productive to healthy political debate in a democracy and, in my view, the mainstream media have a responsibility to address the issue at its root cause. The mainstream media are part of the problem — but they’re also part of the solution.

So, as the Women in the Media team asked at the end of the last report published here, how do we change women’s lack of visibility and voice in the Australian media?

Here are our suggestions, but we’d welcome yours in the comments below:

  1. Newspaper editors could make a strategic decision to encourage female reporters into male dominated rounds; institute editorial policies that encourage enterprising source identification (e.g. identifying fresh female voices); and explicitly discourage sexist stereotyping.
  2. Reporters themselves could undertake more enterprising source identification and conscious source selection in the interests of gender balance.
  3. Female writers could continue to activate social media to build community around quality content generated by women who struggle to get published in mainstream media outlets.
  4. Female sources could “go direct” to their own audiences via social media, bypassing mainstream media outlets when their voices are ignored.
  5. Fundraise support for alternative and community media initiatives that seek to address the problems identified above.
  6. Keep calling out problematic, sexist and misogynistic media coverage and demanding change – that’s a suggestion for professional journalists as well as social media commentators
  7. Facilitate collaborations between industries, professions, academia and media organisations to assist in the identification of female sources/expertise and in the development of more competent and responsible reporting on gender issues.
  8. Work with the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance and the Journalism Education Association of Australia to develop guidelines and training modules to assist and educate journalists and journalism students in reporting gender issues.
  9. Scan international studies on media and gender (there are many of them) to contextualise the Australian experience and learn from other interventions in sexist reporting and strategies to address the male domination of editorial management and the highest profile rounds.
  10. Publish academic research into the representation of women in the media in an accessible way, in an effort to generate debate and highlight concerns. (Note: our project will soon move into an analysis of broadcast and online media coverage of women).

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