Democratic society needs women in the media, concludes Al Jazeera panel

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Women are underrepresented in the news, and democracy — as well as individual citizens — suffers as a result, a panel of gender and media experts stressed during the episode “Why are women still poorly represented in news media?” of The Stream on Al Jazeera English on 18 January.

Though women make up half of the world’s population, WACC’s 6th Global Media Monitoring Program (GMMP) in 2020 found that women featured as the subject and source of news only 25 percent of the time, noted The Stream co-host Ahmed Shihab-Eldin.

Sarah Macharia, WACC Gender and Communication program manager and GMMP global coordinator. Courtesy photo.

Women from minority and marginalized groups are even less visible, GMMP Global Coordinator Sarah Macharia said, giving the example of ethnic minority women in the UK whose likelihood of being underrepresented in the media is double that of white British women.

Fellow panelist Kathryn Shine, senior lecturer in journalism at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, highlighted the important role of WACC’s media monitoring for gender in unveiling the extent of the problem. “We need those statistics that the GMMP has highlighted so consistently over time to show that women are underrepresented.”

Shine emphasized the need to determine how women are portrayed in the news when they are visible. “It’s important to try and avoid the stereotypes, for example, always referencing women as mothers or mainly including women to give [a] personal opinion instead of as authority figures.”

The third panelist, Karen Ross, GMMP Europe region coordinator and professor of gender and media at Newcastle University, UK, agreed. “We don’t see women as experts —even in areas where you would expect to see them.”

Relegating women to the margins

Coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic is a prime example of this absence of women sources, Macharia said. The 6th GMMP showed that patterns of underrepresentation only intensified, according to the global coordinator. She said that despite making up nearly half of healthcare specialists, only 26 percent of experts interviewed for Covid-related coverage were women.

“As news becomes more important, gains salience, we find that women are then relegated to the margins,” Macharia said.

Ross pointed out that in the case of the pandemic, the underrepresentation of women as experts in the news created unnecessary public health risks. “Women’s communication style in communicating health issues is different. Research shows that where [women were featured as experts], the public actually understood more about Covid.”

The panelists flagged different factors driving the lack of women’s voices in media. Simple habit is one reason, Ross said, as journalists find it easier to go to sources they know. Macharia noted that socialization plays an important role, especially in cultures in which the presence of women in the public domain is not viewed favorably.

Making women visible

Many of the keys to change lie with media organizations, Macharia said. “There is an onus here on news organizations to make the effort” to seek out women experts, she stressed.

Shine highlighted the need for journalists to be proactive in making the interview process as positive as possible for women sources. Women may lack the confidence that male experts have, she noted, and they may have justified reservations about appearing in the news. “Journalists need to work to mitigate these things. Part of that is demystifying the process.”

Ross advocated for a stronger focus on journalism students. “[We must] get them to think about issues around equality and intersectionality while they are still developing their craft, before they become acculturated to the norms of [a] particular newsroom.”

Signs of change

GMMP findings in 2020 that showed an increase in the percentage of women interviewed as experts in the preceding five years offered a hopeful sign that some media organizations are listening and taking action, Macharia said. One concrete example she noted is the “mushrooming of various initiatives to create directories of women experts.”

Co-host Femi Oke shared via video about The Stream’s efforts to ensure diversity. Al Jazeera English’s flagship program pledged in 2018 to have women as at least 50 percent of its guests during a given year. In 2022, six of every ten guests were women. “We are balancing out the universe,” Oke said.

The stakes when it comes to the inclusion and representation of women in the media are indeed high, Macharia said. “Business as usual” will mean “a continued erosion of trust in journalism,” resulting in marginalized groups forming their own media at the margins of society rather than in the mainstream.

“We need to have a media that participates, that plays its role in building a democratic society, in being a pillar of democracy and ensuring that all voices are heard.”

Photo at top: screengrab from The Stream episode “Why are women still poorly represented in news media?”