At WACC's recent Cape Town Conference on Gender and Communication Policy the question of women's pages and similar "gendered spaces" came up: Were nominal women's issues relegated to these spaces, or did these pages offer space for empowerment and information for women? We asked four media practitioners to take on this question.
Do gendered spaces work for or against positive coverage of women?
Pat: Women's pages in the media have tended to follow the paradigms used in the field of development to address the needs of marginalised groups, like women. Remember at one time, Women in Development (WID) was the model used to alleviate poverty through income-generating projects, with a view that as women became somewhat economically empowered their participation in governance and other issues would increase. But what has been discovered, now that the focus is on Gender and Development (GAD), is that the WID model only sought to address women's practical needs and did not change their status within society.
So it has been with women's pages. These have often been shifted to the middle or certain sections of the newspapers and are targeted more at women as an audience. This compartmentalisation in the media wrongly gives the impression that women can be separated from the rest of society. As a consequences, many issues on gender violence, gender equity, governance and women's rights as human rights, among others, have been kept separate from national debate, because the media has tucked the stories away on "women's" pages, which will only be read by those interested in these issues...a mechanism for the "converted to keep talking to the converted".
Rina: Until women can claim equity in the media, especially representation in significant numbers in decision-making positions, women will have to try to maximise all the spaces made available for them in the media. True, women's pages evolved out of certain stereotypes about women, but editors in the Philippines have been able to broaden the scope of coverage to other areas of concern. And in setting where traditional definitions of news still prevail, that news is conflict and violence, women's pages have been able to lend coverage to equally vital news that somehow is not deemed worthy of coverage on the front page.
Women's pages have worked for women when they are in the hands of daring, broad-minded editors and staffers.
Anita: In the early days, when "women's pages" were created they were the space available to women. And they were a Godsend! As to be expected, some of this coverage was stereotypical - fashion, homemaking, childcare, nutrition - but of interest to women. Women who found this a problem were those (feminist or otherwise) who saw women's role in society as outside the home as well. (But) feminist critique of mainstream media has never spelled out what a positive portrayal is. The focus was more on the negative, and it still is. In many developing countries where mainstream media are male-dominated and generally sexist, women's pages are an essential space to work with.
Have they become trivialised, for example a place for "recipe and fashion"?
Rina: Well I have nothing against recipes and fashion! I believe they, too, are valid human concerns, vastly entertaining and even useful. The only thing wrong with them is that most editors and publishers assume only women readers are interested in such stuff, when, in fact, men readers turn to lighter lifestyle stuff, too, when they seek variety in their reading.
In the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the lifestyle section has evolved so thoroughly at the hands of the editor that it has become a major draw (especially on weekends) and advertising earner. It has also led the news section in coverage of issues that moved from mere lifestyle concerns to legitimate news - Viagra, for example.
Pat: While it is true that "women's" pages have been used to provide how-to-information to women on marriage, fashion, food, beauty, home improvement, etc., they also have been the pages where, when editors found a feature on domestic violence, women in politics, poverty among women, they would put them on these pages. So there has been a mixture of the types of articles on these pages. The problem, as explained above, is the creation of a situation where society begins to separate issues according to specific groups, in this case women, and therefore does not understand how these issues are important to the development of a nation or society as a whole.
Soon after Beijing, a local daily paper in Zimbabwe re-introduced a women's page. In the first article on the new page which gave the reasons for doing this, the writer said the page would not deal with the "why" but with the "how" of gender equality. Well, to me, "why" is the analysis which is so often missing from the media's agenda, and this is why we often tend to tell either half of the story or the same stories over and over again confined to one page - it runs throughout the paper in all stories to explain the "news behind the event" rather than just reporting on the "event" itself.
Anita: Women's pages starting out in some mainstream media have tended to restrict (as opposed to trivialise) concerns of women to the domestic sphere. The more sophisticated dailies have very serious writing by women writers of repute (such as the Guardian in the United Kingdom). Much depends on the editor of the page and the management of the daily. Most women editors (they usually are women) feel they have little negotiating power to bring "serious issues" to the page. The experience of the Women's Feature Service has been that serious issues sell well in mainstream media, depending on how they are presented (the style).
Women's negotiating power (something most women have little grooming and skill in - but can learn) is a major factor in how issues (traditional or otherwise) get reflected in the pages.
Sheila: Women's pages have made something of a comeback in the U.S. after most newspapers dropped them in the early 1970s. They disappeared because many women found their dominant content - advice on homemaking, food preparation, child-rearing and society announcements - limited and formulaic.
In response, newspaper editors created "lifestyle" sections instead, with a mixture of news and features about the arts and personalities, designed to attract a male and female readership. The change was a mixed blessing. True, narrowly defined roles for women, as projected by the women's pages, were no longer a standing feature of the newspaper. But the old women's pages also contained articles about women who made news in politics, culture, national and international events. When the pages were abolished, for a time news about women diminished dramatically in newspapers because other sections of the newspapers were extremely slow to broaden their coverage to include women's activities. Whether or not women readers benefited from this change is being debated to this day.
How would you define "women's news" as opposed to "men's news" or "mainstream news"? Are there difficulties or pitfalls in this sort of definition?
Anita: Mainstream news follows the traditional how, what, when, where and who of an event, and a pyramid approach to building the story - the most important point at the top of the story and the less important facts towards the bottom.
Women journalists in mainstream media do not have a unique view or perspective just because they are women. Trained and socialised in mainstream systems, they tend to downplay their intuition and insight, as journalistic training insists that there are no differences between women and men writing - or simply put, a journalist is a journalist, and the myth of objectivity in reporting reigns supreme. The pitfall in any definition is the assumption that women's news falls outside the purview of mainstream news. Women are very much part of the mainstream. The reason news about women is negligible is because women have failed to see (and therefore project) themselves as newsmakers. And, media women and men have also failed to see them as such.
Pat: News is news, but what we tend to do in the media is report an issue as if it affects everyone in the same way. For example, there was a lot of reporting on economic reform programmes (Structural Adjustment) when they were introduced in African countries. But these were straight generic reports and features about the programmes. As time went along and researchers and civil society groups began to take note of the increasing poverty, the effects of cost recovery programmes on health and education and other aspects of economic reforms, it was noted that economic reform programmes impacted differently on men and women, because of their different positions within society.
The media needs to mainstream the voices and perspectives of men and women in all of its coverage...women have views and opinons on political, economic, technical and other issues, in the same way that men should be interviewed on gender violence, women's rights as human rights, etc. As we begin to do this, we also break down artificial categories.
Democratising society cannot be done unless the media democratises itself, both in terms of employment patterns, but also in terms of editorial policies which begin to integrate men's and women's voices into the coverage of issues.
Sheila: Newspaper executives are under considerable pressure to bring women readers back to the newspaper. They are addressing this problem in several ways:
- Exploring definitions of news and testing to see if those definitions tend to exclude women's activities.
- Analysing the tone and content of stories written about women and about men to see if there are differences in the ways reporters write about women and men.
- Re-introducing content just for women in the form of a women's page or a weekly women's section or throughout the newspaper.
The Hartford Courant, for example, in June introduced a yearlong programme in which articles written for women will appear throughout the paper flagged with the "About Women" logo.
"We're thinking of 'About Women' as a development stage in the evolution of our newspaper," wrote deputy managing editor Barbara Roessner in the introduction to the programme. "A year from now, our logo will disappear. Our hope, though, is that the stories will continue."
It's impossible to say whether in the Courant's approach, or the Chicago Tribune's, which reintroduced a weekly women's section in the early 1990s, or the newsroom task forces that debate what a woman has to achieve to be considered newsworthy, will ultimately renew women's flagging interest in being regular newspaper readers. Each of these methods is worthy in its own way. But it may take a combination of these efforts, with particular attention to broadening traditional definitions of news, before women readers are convinced that the newspaper has their best interests at heart.
Rina: This definition, the very dichotomy between hard and soft news is artificial and evolved at a time when the news business was largely in the hands of men. I believe all news is all people's news, and distinction should be made between the concerns of women and men. In fact, issues like education, health, the family, social welfare - concern more people than the latest shenanigans in the Senate or House, and therefore deserve greater coverage than they are currently given.
Still, until we can re-write journalism texts, we will have to live with the definitions, although I can't see why we can't keep pushing the envelope, challenging the establishment to make room for non-news.