Monday, 23 April 2012

Feminism and the News Media


By Chris McKenna (u1007729)

Mary Stott, the long-serving editor of the Guardian Women's Page.

When first looking at the news media from a feminist perspective, the thing that initially caught my eye was that while most major newspapers have a specific section for feminist news and comment, the story selection in these can be quite different to the front pages. Specifically, rather than offering a feminist perspective on the day's main news stories, as determined by prominence on the first few pages, they instead almost exclusively stories that prominently feature women. If the front page headline is about a story involving the intersection of two male-dominated walks of life, for example the prime minister meeting senior banking figures, there will be little if any coverage of the story in the feminist sections. More likely featured will be the meeting of a junior female minister with a women's group – the section would be more accurately titled “women's news” rather than labelled as feminism.

To take a specific example of Monday 23rd April 2012, the top news on The Guardian's website was about Ofcom investigating Sky News about email hacking, and about the record share of the vote gained by the far right in the first round of elections for the French President.
The latter story in particular should offer plenty of scope for feminist comment, building on the work of prominent authors like Amina Mama and bell hooks, looking at the implications for society in general and women in particular. Yet the top stories on the Feminism section are about an explosion in grass-roots feminist activist groups and about how two sisters are fighting the “pinkification” of girls' toys. In The Politics of the Smile: 'Soft News' and the sexualisation of the popular press (in: Carter, C., Branston, G. and Allan, S., 1998, p.18) Patricia Holland writes “[...] the introduction of lightweight features and all types of trivia, including the domestic, as well as a move to a 'softer' more ticklish type of news, has been seen as a feminisation of the new mass-circulation press, brought about by its desire for a broad appeal.” This desire for softer news to attract a female audience, with it's origins in the 1890s (ibid.) when attitudes towards women were very different, is probably the cause – it was the old women's pages which evolved into today's feminist and lifestyle pages – but did they change more than the name?

Searching through the archives even reveals no feminist comment on the role of Rebekah Brooks, editor of the News of the World, in the phone hacking enquiry despite playing a central role by any objective measure. The lack of coverage could stem from several reasons, but the most likely are either that it is too “hard” news for the softer pages intended for a feminine audience, or perhaps it is because it does not paint women in a positive role? While sexism is reducing in the media (Holland, 1991) it is still something that editors and journalists are sensitive to and conscious of, so one must it seems be very careful when criticising women so as not to appear sexist.

Rodgers though offers a different perspective, (c. 2008, in Sarikakis and Shade, p.192-193), putting the blame on the increasing “comodification” of news and the resultant needs of the large corporate entities that own the media outlets to sell advertising. This, she argues, places constraints on journalistic content, mandating against a change to the status quo of “uncontroversial content that does not offend advertisers and draws in revenue” (ibid.).

Looking at this as as man, it seems rather sexist from several perspectives; firstly it is implying that all feminists are women, and that women are not interested in the so-called 'hard news', preferring the softer human stories. It also means that women's issues are disproportionately featured, for the major issues are explored in the paper whether they affect men, women or both; but while the relatively lesser stories regarding and affecting women have a dedicated section in the papers, there is no equivalent for men's issues. This is even though it is well known that the women's and feminist pages are read by many men and have been so for many years (Jeger, L. The Guardian 2002).

Further, while there are increasingly many female journalists covering the majority of a paper's content, indeed there are women in senior editorial positions, the authors of the feminist sections are very nearly 100% female. As Stephen Heath says in Men in Feminism (in Jardine A. & Smith P. 1987, P.9) “Feminism is a subject for women who are, precisely, its subjects [...]. Feminism is also a subject for Men, what it is about obviously concerns them [...].”. Why then is this so unremarked upon?

It seems that exploration of the choice of news stories in feminist and pages of newspapers is almost completely ignored it seems in academic circles - when I started to research this, I was surprised to see that there had been only limited academic discourse on this subject. Why this is so is something that I have not been able to determine, as there is undoubtedly the depth of material available for study. It is however, outside the scope of this blog entry to conduct the required primary research, and it will have to remain as an unanswered question.

What has been explored in the literature though is the wider question of sexism in the news media and relevance women's and feminist sections play and whether they are a good or bad thing in the contemporary world. Lena Jeger notes that even the long-serving editor of the Guardian's Women's Page had doubts about whether it was a marginalisation or emancipation, “It was Mary Stott's background in "real" journalism that led her to think hard when the then Guardian editor Alastair Hetherington asked her to edit the paper's women's page in 1957.” (The Guardian, 2002)

Van Dijk (1995, in Paletez 1995, pp.13-14) argues that the presence of the sections marginalises women and highlights the underlying sexism of the journalistic profession. “Feminist scholarship has extensively shown the prevalence of male chauvinism in the mass media, even today, despite the modest gains in the employment of female journalists [...] and the slow acceptance of some major demands of the women's movement. [...] Most journalists are men and women have even less access to higher editorial positions [than ethnic minorities]. As sources they are less credible [than men], and hence less quoted, and as news actors they are less newsworthy. […] [N]ews content and style continue to contribute to stereotypical attitudes about women. Feminism itself is ignored, problematized [sic], or marginalized. Readers are generally presupposed to be male.”

Patricia Holland, writing in 1991, though was more positive noting that “The women's pages in the national press have provided a space for larger articles by women freelancers. The Guardian women's page, particularly under its long-standing editor, Mary Stott, gained a reputation for broadening the discussion of women's issues in that paper.” (Holland, 1991, p.18) She is also more upbeat about the role of women in the newspapers, “In 1987 Wendy Henry became editor of News of the World. She was the first woman to become editor of a national paper since Mary Howarth in 1903. […] After only a year she moved to edit the rival Sunday paper, the People. At both papers she was succeeded by a woman editor. The days when women were excluded from the newsroom were finally over.” (ibid. p.19)

Even as long as ago as the 1980s there was debate about whether a specific slot on television was needed for women and “Channel 4 continued to argue that there should be no specific commissioning editor for women's programmes.” (ibid. p.42).

Another argument against the separation is provided by Riley (1988, p.16) when she comments that collective identities such as “women” and “lesbian” are impermanent and not fully defining, giving the example that “you do not live your life fully defined as a shop assistant, nor as a Greek Cypriot”. By this theory, there is no single homogeneous group that can be defined by the label “women” or “feminist”, so by including a separate section the editors, who define the structure of the paper, are “othering” (see Mulvey, 1975) those who they seek to include within it.

Rogers essay (c. 2008 in Sarikakis and Shade) though can be used to provide an argument for the value in separation – by having specific, predictable content sections with a defined target audience, advertising space is more saleable and therefore more valuable. This ensures that the feminist views will remain accessible in the mainstream media.

One thing that is clear though is that as we move towards the middle of 2012 the debate about the value and content of such sections is far from over.

(1478 words)
References:
Heath, s. (1986). Men in Feminism. in: Jardine, A. and Smith, P. eds, (1987) Men in Feminism, London: Routledge (p.9)

Holland, P. (c. 1998) The Politics of the Smile: 'Soft News' and the sexualisation of the popular press, in Carter, C., Branston, G. and Allan, S. eds. (1998) News, Gender, and Power, London: Routledge (p.18)

Humm, M. (1995) The Dictionary of Feminist Theory. 2nd edn. Columbus, USA: Ohio State University Press

Jeger, L. (2002). Obituary: Mary Stott. The Guardian [Online], 18 September 2002 16:03 BST. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2002/sep/18/guardianobituaries.gender [Accessed: 22 April 2012]

Lorber, J. (2005) Gender Inequality. 3Rd edn. Los Angeles, USA: Roxbury Publishing Company.

Mulvey, L. (1975), 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', Screen 16(3), pp. 6-18, Mark Tribe [Online]. Available at: https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/display/MarkTribe/Visual+Pleasure+and+Narrative+Cinema (Accessed: 10 April 2009)

Riley, D. (1988) Am I That Name? Feminism and the category of 'Women' in History. Basingstoke: The MacMillan Press.

Rodgers, J. (c.2008) Online News: Setting New Gender Agendas. In Sarikakis, K. and Shade, L. R., eds. (2008), Feminist Interventiosn in International Communication: Minding the Gap.

Van Dijk, T. A., (1995), Power and the News Media (pp.24-25) in D. Paletz (Ed.), (1995), Political Communication and Action. (pp. 9-36). Cresskill, New Jersey, United States: Hampton Press. Available at: http://www.discourses.org/OldArticles/Power%20and%20the%20news%20media.pdf

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