More women's voices needed in the media to ensure fair reporting

Su-Mei Thompson says gender stereotypes are holding women back

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 June, 2014, 12:08pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 2:08am

Last week, the region's leading media titles gathered in Hong Kong for the annual awards dinner of the Society of Publishers in Asia, which this year celebrated a new category for "Excellence in Reporting on Women's Issues". Earlier, in March, Singapore toasted the winners of the "Women's Empowerment Journalism Awards", which attracted over 300 entries.

For both awards events, several of the most highly commended pieces were investigative accounts of the brutal Delhi rape incident. Incisive coverage by the international press condemning the assailants ignited months of local protests and global scrutiny.

Under pressure, the Indian government passed several tough new laws against rape, underscoring the power of the media to effect change.

But the awards and the positive outcome of the media coverage of the Delhi rape belie the fact that, in most reports of violence against women, the press is largely insensitive to the gender implications of the way reports are constructed.

Indeed, many accounts manifest the media's presumptions about ossified patriarchal systems and the patriarchal values that act as the lens through which harassment against women should be viewed and judged.

Reporting that leads by describing what the victim was wearing, whether she was drinking and why she was out so late at night implicitly - if not explicitly - shifts the blame to the victim instead of focusing on the central question of why, in the 21st century, men and boys continue to perpetrate violence against women and girls.

For example, last May, in response to a government report showing that rape cases in Hong Kong for the first three months of the year increased by 60 per cent over a year ago, Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok appealed to women not to drink "too much".

International finger-wagging at India for lagging behind first-world liberal attitudes towards women is also hypocritical and doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

For example, in last year's highly publicised Steubenville case, two high school athletes sexually assaulted a drunken teenage girl in yet another incident of campus rape in the US. CNN's reporting of the incident was roundly criticised for presenting an unduly sympathetic view of the rapists and how their promising academic and athletic careers had been brought tragically low by the outcome of the trial.

These biases are in part due to a gender imbalance in reporting - both in terms of talent and topics reported. Worldwide, women make up just 36 per cent of reporter jobs and occupy only 27 per cent of top management in media organisations. Across the major UK newspapers, women write around a fifth of the stories; in the US, women write less than a third of the op-eds.

A survey of one month's worth of articles in the seven most widely distributed Chinese and English newspapers in Hong Kong shows that only 38.5 per cent were written by women and, of these articles, 80 per cent were on "pink-collar" topics: fashion, food, family and leisure.

Clearly, we need a new awareness of the value system that is colouring or occluding the narrative.

And we need more women's voices to emerge, not just in social media, but in the pages of the traditional press and on the most popular TV news channels, across the most important issues of the day, from geopolitics to global security, from the international economy and financial markets to global health and the environment.

Through the influence of more female voices and more informed media practices, excellence in reporting on women's issues can truly begin to transform the pervasive gender stereotypes in media and news reporting, and ultimately the attitudes that continue to hold women back.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO of The Women's Foundation. Lisa Moore and Jessica Gao also contributed to this article, which is part of a monthly series on gender issues developed in collaboration with the foundation