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Exploring gender and the media: why we need equality

*This post is an assignment for my “Journalism in a free society” course to discuss gender and the media in 2014. Keep in mind this is a surface exploration of news media’s current practices regarding gender roles and representation in the media. There’s so much to analyze here, but I have time to address only a few topical issues…

Our class discussion of gender representation in the media and in newsrooms comes at a prime time. Women are fighting vigorously on behalf of women’s rights on social, economic and political fronts. And in some cases, media coverage is the only leverage they have.

The #HeForShe campaign, pioneered by Emma Watson, U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador, is this month’s heartiest example of a push for gender equality. Watson’s speech, given earlier this week to a group of U.N. members, introduced the new campaign using a hashtag and urging supporters to take action online. The campaign, which asks males to commit to gender equality, was launched through viral media attention. The video of Watson’s speech has over 4.4 million views on YouTube. News media from The Washington Post to Politico covered the #HeForShe speech.

But, rather than reporting the facts of the campaign, its controversial nature prompted worldwide debate over Watson’s credibility as an advocate for gender equality. The speech was covered heavily in blog and editorial pieces—anything allowing outright opinion—often accusatorially labeling her as a feminist, which in 2014, carries an unjustly negative connotation for many. This situation shows precisely what little regard the news media has for females. 

It’s important to note, though, the most positive, advocative headlines, and accompanying articles, about her speech (i.e. ‘Watch Emma Watson Deliver Game-Changing Speech on Feminism for the U.S.’) were written by female writers and published by female interest publications. In this case, Vanity Fair. And yet, strangely, these publications are still largely male-run.

“All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men and women to do nothing.” -Edmund Burke (quoted by Emma Watson)

Contrary to the rapid evolvement of digital media over the last decade, the percentage of women journalists and women working in newsrooms has remained virtually unchanged in the last two decades. Not to mention they’re generally accepting lower pay than their male counterparts. It goes without saying that the #HeForShe campaign is working to change this (along with the treatment of women in the workplace, among other things). But sadly, Watson’s campaign, and ones like it, may never succeed in making a difference if they rely on media coverage—media coverage that just so happens to be male dominated (about 64 percent of newsrooms are male, according to Pew Research Center).

But where the professional news media’s coverage of women lacks in 2014, social media is there to pick it right back up. In the recent coverage of Ray Rice’s domestic violence controversy, his wife was criticized in the media for marrying Rice after the incident. But fear not, social media quickly tweeted to the rescue, creating the hashtag #WhyIStayed to defend Janay Rice’s decision.

This carries the issue to new heights, however. If social media (also known as the general public/anyone and everyone with access to the Internet) is the most honest and empowering voice available to the masses, what role does the professional news media play?

Since women’s suffrage was granted in 1920, we have been making strides toward equality—and we’ve reached a stalemate. Proud as we are that women have made it past a time when female reporters were forced to stand on the balcony of The National Press Club ballroom in the 1970s, separated from the male reporters, to cover speeches and events from afar, we’ve still not made it to where we want to be—and that’s a place of equality. I think that’s largely due to the media’s coverage of women.

News media is perpetuating a lasting divergence between men and women in the workplace, and as journalists, in particular. Journalism is the people’s institution. It’s meant to inform, educate and engage consumers. It’s meant to document the magnitude of the human experience. Historically, it’s been an advocate for justice. And when it comes to issues of basic human rights (like the universal equality of the sexes) journalists should be the greatest advocate for themselves.

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