At Large

Gender and the media landscape

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When you read a newspaper, turn on the radio or switch on the TV set (or log on to the Internet or check your cell phone), does it ever occur to you to check for gender balance in the contents, the depiction of the characters, or the composition of the reporting staff and management?

Gender what? Maybe we in the media should be grateful you care about the news at all, instead of zoning out and narrowing your field of interest to gossip about you and your friends, and what some random stranger ate for breakfast (complete with a food shot).

Such is the news field these days—pushed in large part by the advent of new technology—that ordinary people can make their world as wide or as narrow as they wish. It was once assumed that with global developments at our fingertips, our field of interest would correspondingly widen, allowing us to check out what’s happening anywhere in the world, keeping us in touch with global developments.

But the broad range of choices available to media consumers has also enabled them—us—to pick and choose what we read, listen to or watch. And in many instances the go-to option has been to opt out, to narrow down our choices to topics, persons or concerns that interest us and our highly personal, highly specific interests.

I remember American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, during a TV interview, speaking of the great influence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the American people during his term. At the time, she said, one could walk down a street and follow a radio broadcast of FDR as one walked past one house after another. It seemed FDR united the nation at those moments, transfixing households who got their political education and their news from their radio sets—all at the same time. It seemed what Roosevelt initiated was not just a “fireside chat” but no less than a national conversation, involving all living Americans, who inevitably continued the commentary and debate in the days that followed, thus forging a national consensus.

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Well, maybe those days of “fireside chats” are over. Presidents, and that includes our own P-Noy, continue to schedule national TV addresses, requesting national networks to interrupt their prime time broadcasts to air their message.

But even if the networks comply—and they don’t always—there’s no guarantee that everyone will be tuning in. There are too many other options today if all channels choose to air the President’s address at the same time. People can watch movies (on DVD or data sticks or even streamed), play computer games, or check their phones for Twitter updates.

So to go back to my opening paragraph: Maybe it’s a good thing the audience still invests time and attention on current events, still seeks out the news.

Does it matter, really, whether the news is gathered, written, published, shot, aired, commented on and analyzed most commonly by men, and very rarely by women?

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Well, as it so happens, yes, it matters. Objectivity may be a cherished value in the news business, but biology and culture—and thus gender—are not at all objective.

It does matter how a man or a woman would report a certain event. It matters if it’s a man or a woman commenting on that event. It even matters if a man or a woman holds the camera that shoots a scene. The choice of subject alone would be dictated by the news gatherer’s gender.

This is why the Magna Carta of Women, a law that covers the basic rights and protection of Filipino women, mentioned the need for “non-discriminatory and non-derogatory portrayal of women in media and film.” The law requires that the “State ensure allocation of space, airtime and resources, strengthen programming, production, and image-making that appropriately present women’s needs, issues and concerns in all forms of media, communication, information dissemination and advertising.”

At the same time, the law requires the Office of the Press Secretary to create a “gender equality committee” to flesh out the rules to guide the creation of a “gender fair” media. The committee is composed of the Philippine Commission on Women, the National Telecommunications Commission, the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, Film Academy of the Philippines, the Optical Media Board, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, media self-regulatory bodies (Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas and the Adboard) and women’s media NGOs (Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and Women’s Feature Service).

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The committee launched last week three documents that can be used to guide both government and private media in creating this gender fair environment. They include a Code of Ethics for Media, Guidelines to Protect Women from Discrimination in Media and Film, and a Gender Equality Guide.

Olive Tripon of the Women’s Feature Service showed in her presentation that there is indeed urgent need for gender equality in media content and in decision-making.

International media monitoring projects, for instance, record that “women represent only a third of the full-time journalism workforce in the 522 companies surveyed”; while 73 percent of top management jobs in media firms were occupied by men. At the reporter level, nearly two-thirds of the jobs were held by men.

Indeed, “men outnumber women 4 to 1 across the Asia and Oceana region,” noted Tripon.

The situation is little better in the Philippines, Tripon added, even if major media institutions (including this paper) are headed by women. Filipino women in the media, she said, need to step up efforts to increase the presence of women in the media, in their reportage and contents or in their numbers.

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