Sexism in Mainstream Media

South Africa and other developing countries show the help that community radio can give in terms of women empowerment.

The Western mainstream media frequently and consistently overlooks women, and the situation for the developing world is even more bleak. As put by Margaret Gallagher, an International Media Consultant, “Blatant stereotyping is alive and well in news reporting around the world. Nor is it limited to the gratuitous display of female flesh – although there are plenty of examples of this. Sexist reporting extends to a very wide range of stories – including sport, crime, violence, and even politics.”

This is particularly visible in data from the Global Media Monitoring Project: 10% of stories focus on women; Women account for 30% of witnesses and 31% of opinions represented; 86% of “experts” are men. In her analysis of the project, Gallagher says, “The 2005 Global Media Monitoring Project demonstrates a glaring democratic deficit in the news media globally. Women – 52% of the world’s population – are barely present in the faces seen, the voices heard, the opinions represented in the news.”

10 years on, the situation has not improved much. According to the 2015 Women in Media Annual Report, women are still vastly under-represented by the news media, in terms of opportunities, content, issues and physical presence. Men report 65% of political stories, 63% of science coverage, 64% of world politics coverage and 67% of criminal justice news. The issue is wider than statistics alone. As put by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett in their report for the LA Times, “With end-of-men scare stories, the media routinely exaggerate women’s success and present the worst possible scenarios for men. The implicit message for women is ‘step back, you’ve gone too far. You’re hurting men.’ But women still have miles to go to achieve gender equality.”

One of the most successful initiatives in combatting gender inequality within the media is community radio. Jeanne Bourgault, President of Internews, believes that, “Media can give women a place to speak and to participate in a way that they may not be able to in other parts of their lives. Radio is particularly powerful in this way, because it’s not a visual image.” Recently, there has been a noticeable shift in the perception of community journalism — from a rebellious anti-media outlet for the repressed to an impactful, profitable and sustainable legitimate tool for media development.

Radio in particular has overcome traditional barriers to media development in rural areas. Being able to broadcast in local languages overcomes low literacy levels. Particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, many civilians get their news, entertainment and local information from the radio, so there is already an existing audience. As detailed by Jean Fairbairn in her Community Media Sustainability Guide, South Africa provides the perfect example of this cultural shift. In the 1980s, CASET or the Cassette Education Trust, was founded as part of the anti-apartheid movement. They interviewed leaders and activists, and document the struggle from a perspective overlooked or completely missing from the mainstream media. They would also circulate the recordings at anti-apartheid rallies, so that members of the opposition could actually hear their leaders; they had been barred from mainstream media by this stage.

Founder of CASET, Edric Gorfinkel, says, “We thought we’d invented the concept of community radio! It was only when the World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC) got hold of our stuff somehow or other, and we got this thing inviting us to send something to the World Assembly of Community Radio. And we thought whoa, hey, man—there’s other people out there doing it.”

This is not surprising. As so much content of early community radio stations went against mainstream politics and the media, they were all operating “underground.” In South Africa particularly, many people were arrested and there were widespread bans – it was a dangerous initiative to be involved with. In 1995, this changed, and South Africa legalised community radio. The law now states that a community radio station must have the following properties: fully controlled by a nonprofit body and run for nonprofit purposes; serves a particular community; encourages community participation in selecting and running programs; may be funded by donations, grants, sponsorships, advertising, or membership fees, or by a combination of these methods.

There are now 100 recognised community stations on the air in South Africa — a drastic change. The most interesting element of this is the necessity of community participation. At one point the idea of people being in control of information seemed un-nerving to the South African government, but now it is a legal requirement. This participatory nature of community radio can be seen worldwide, and is particularly empowering for under-represented groups in the mainstream media – especially women.

Initiatives like Radio Nari Aawaj in the Jumla district of Nepal are providing equipment and substantial financial support while exclusively training women as radio professionals; according to their website nearly 30 women will be trained in operation and production. The Women’s Leadership and Civic Journalism program is now operating in 60 villages in rural Senegal, and their work is estimated to have reached 450,000 people.

The content of the broadcasts is broadening too. Women are being encouraged to be part of wider discussions about healthcare, politics and education, as just some examples. According to the Women In Media 2015 report, “Culture, education, health, lifestyle and religion were the more likely topics for women journalists. On those topics, the number of women ranged from 41.3 percent to 54.6 percent”. In terms of community radio, this highlights a huge opportunity: health and education are frequently mentioned as two of the most successful issues for community radio stations, alongside politics, making women a natural fit as leaders in these areas.

By recruiting women from rural areas, community radio is supporting a number of wider development goals. It has long been proven that empowering women through education and employment is a powerful tool.

Obviously , there needs to be an environment of encouragement for these projects to be sustainable, and as with many development initiatives, funding is always a concern. That said, South Africa provides a powerful example of what can happen with the right climate and women in particular are reaping the benefits across the world.

Caitlin Bawn

After completing a BA in English Literature and an MSc in International Relations at home in the UK, Caitlin Bawn was left wanting a career that combined her love of writing with her passion for issues of international development. Caitlin is currently pursuing a Masters in Journalism at Boston University, with a focus on international reporting - particularly related to global health. In her spare time she enjoys photography, travelling and is the founder of social enterprise Epiphany, dedicated to combatting human rights issues through small-scale locally run projects. Website:
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