Media Coverage Perpetuates Harmful Stereotypes
In the past few days, the prevalence of gender stereotyping in the media has come under scrutiny from gender organisations, who continue to ask the hard questions of who makes and informs the news.
While the media becomes ever more pervasive in informing the world's perception of itself, throughout the world women struggle to tell their own stories, in their own voices.
With more and more gender organisations standing up and taking notice of the way that women are represented by the media, the question is raised - who watches the watchdog of society? Speaking at the South African launch of the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) 2005, Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, put it aptly when she said, “The tendency for the media to think it is above all - while as a watchdog itself it is not being watched - is rather presumptuous.”
Bringing the Picture into Focus
Despite the fact that women constitute 51% of the South African population, they feature in only 26% of articles, while men dominate with 74%.
Yet, the problem receives poor attention. In the few cases where women are featured in the news, they are poorly represented - portrayed either as victims of violence or as passive objects of beauty. Only very rarely are they depicted as contributing members of society.
Some may argue that both men and women are featured as victims by the media, and that it depends on the story that is being told. However, when it comes to reports on violence, 23% of women are portrayed as victims while only 10% of men are depicted so.
According to Colleen Lowe Morna, Executive Director of Gender Links, most gender-related reporting relies on court reporting. “Courts are stacked against women,” she says, “We are hearing more from men than women on gender violence.”
The question of who makes and informs the news becomes very relevant when considered against the backdrop of the reporting that took place during Former Deputy President, Jacob Zuma and soccer star Benedict Vilakazi’s rape trials: in both cases the complainant was misrepresented continuously by the media.
Media: Part of the Problem or the Solution?
It is sad but true, fair and informative stories about women and gender are still in the minority when it comes to representation in the media.
At a recent one-day conference held as a precursor to the 16 Days of No Violence against Women and Children campaign, the South African Gender and Media (SAGEM) Network; the South African chapter of the Gender and Media Southern Africa (GEMSA) Network, and Gender Links, probed the question whether the media is part of the problem or the solution regarding gender relations.
Kebarileng Sebetoane, a survivor of gender violence who spoke out at the event, told her story of being raped because of her sexual orientation. She spoke of how the media took her words and misquoted her at every turn. Sebetoane’s story was covered by media programmes such as Asikhulume ‘Lets Talk’ and Third Degree. In both of cases, she claims, the media highlighted her sexual orientation rather than the actual rape. “The media was one sided,” she said.
In Sebetoane’s view, the media is not a solution but rather a problem, “The media is selling out to the wolves,” she argued. However, she acknowledged that The Star, which also covered her story, did portray the story like it was.
Despite the fact that the media has repeatedly purported itself to be an objective and fair window or mirror to the world, there have been many instances where it has not represented society well – such was the case with Sebetoane. The distorted picture of women that the media continues to bring to the table casts doubt on the very fundamentals of the fourth estate.
All is not Lost
However, all does not appear to be lost. This year alone, civil society has taken the media to task a number of times for the reality that is being reflected by the fourth estate to the general public.
From 15 February to 8 March 2006, hundreds of gender and media activists took part in the campaign ‘Who Makes the News? Three Weeks of Global Action on Gender and the Media. The campaign highlighted the need for civil society to undertake an ongoing dialogue with editors and media decision makers to make them aware of the results of their work.
Speaking at the one day gender and media conference, Delphine Serumaga, Executive Director for People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), said that, “There has to be a clear understanding of what media wants and how we (civil society) can interact with this.”
In the same vein, POWA, Gender Links, GEMSA and other regional gender organisations partnered with Kaya FM - a Johannesburg based radio station - to tell the I Stories of 20 first hand accounts of gender violence from across Southern Africa.
According to Ntebo Mokobo, journalist for Kaya FM, the radio station has also undertaken to ensure that women’s voices are heard in their hourly bulletins.
Serumaga maintains that it is civil society’s responsibility to ensure that the media follows up reporting during campaigns such as the 16 Days of Activism. “Civil society must question how we engage with the sphere. We must learn how to manipulate the space,” she added.
After the 16 Days of No Violence against Women and Children campaign, the tendency is for media interest of gender violence and gender related issues to dwindle to near nothingness, only to be taken and dusted out when prominent figures are charged with harassment or gender violence.
The media makes little attempt to analyse gender violence within the broader context of poverty and underdevelopment, which is a perpetuating force and constant challenge for many victims of gender violence. Gender based NGOs are calling on the media to extend their reporting of gender issues throughout the 365 days of the year.
- Badumile Duma, Information Service Co-ordinator, SANGONeT.