Women’s voices missing in public discourse

Special Focus – International Day to End Impunity Nov 2nd

November 2nd is the UN declared International Day to End Impunity for crimes against journalists. The 2015 theme is quality journalism and gender equality. Against this backdrop women remain vastly under-represented in newsrooms and in news coverage in spite of transformation efforts since the end of apartheid.

The commemoration of Black Wednesday and Media Freedom Day on 19 October marked the launch of the 2014 State of the Newsroom Report outlining some of the disruptions and challenges facing the South African news media.

Challenges aside, the South African news media have come a long way since the days of apartheid rule. Gone are the days of overt racism in the newsroom, and overt racist conceptualisations of the audience as reflected through “black editions” of newspapers and native or Bantustan news, and newspapers explicitly carrying an agenda of particular racist ideologies and beliefs.

However, it is still true that the news media is fragmented and audiences divided by language and socio-economic factors that dictate access and ideas around what is considered news.

As we celebrate the progress made in the transformation of the news media, it is important that we also address the areas in which we are still lacking. One such area highlighted by the editor of the report, Glenda Daniels of Wits Journalism, is the lack of gender transformation in the newsroom. Not only do we have negative equity in terms of women in editorial positions but also in the coverage of the news media. Female voices rarely make it in to news stories and female sources are less quoted than male sources. The report shows that 12 out of 43 editors are female, only 6 out of 43 are black women.

Despite the strong focus on racial and gender equity in the newsroom this has not been enough to create a news media that truly supports an inclusive participatory democracy. Despite gender parity among journalists employed in South African newsrooms, this has not translated in to noticeable changes in the contents of the news media. Female journalists do not alter news agendas and have less power to do so than their male counterparts.

1This has severe implications for diversity in the news media and the role that women play in influencing public discourse formation in South Africa. This is also particularly disturbing for journalism educators who see more female than male journalism graduates in their classes. The typical journalism graduate at the University of Johannesburg where I teach is a young black female, often a so-called first generation university student, i.e. a student from a family where no one previously held a university degree.

This new generation of journalists could have a tremendous impact on the news media in the changing political and socio-economic landscape. However, this is premised on news media managers and owners showing real commitment to facilitating change. And importantly, allowing these new journalists to make the impact that they can make by opening up opportunities for female journalists, young black females in particular.

Race has for centuries been a determining factor in South African social, cultural, religious and economic life, and continues to be in the post-apartheid media. Class has also been added to the discussion around the media. In South Africa, race and class are intrinsically linked. As political change started to take place in South Africa in the late 1980s newspapers began hiring and promoting female reporters and reporters of colour in larger numbers. After the elections in 1994, it was agreed however that transformation needed to go deeper. During the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) hearings in to racism in the news media the small number of black sub-editors and women in senior management positions were particularly highlighted. The SAHRC stated that if diversity in ownership is achieved there would be an automatic diversity in hiring.

2Affirmative action policies talk to the conviction that social demographics of journalists, whether these focus on gender, ethnicity, race or class, do matter. Put differently, if only those who produce media content become more representative of society as a whole, media content will be too. In terms of gender, some anecdotal evidence exists that the hiring of more women does change news content. Other studies of women in the newsroom show that they tend to differ very little from their male counterparts.

Instead, journalists independent of gender are quickly socialised into a professional newsroom culture and a way of conducting journalism where gender has little impact on the way in which journalism is practised. Constraints imposed by organisations, despite the private intentions of individual actors, and, the inevitability of the “social construction” of reality in any social system speaks against the thesis that changing the social make-up of reporters will also change reporting itself. That female journalists do not change coverage to any higher extent might also relate to women lacking critical mass to alter news agendas and coverage.

The same might be argued for race, ethnicity and class. However, the impression that social demographics matter persists. This is evident in the way that transformation has been conceptualised and implemented in South Africa.

A study by South African NGO Gender Links shows a 50/50 gender parity throughout the media sector. Despite this women still struggle to get to management level and still earn less than men and racism and sexism still abounds. Out of the total population of female journalists working in a newsroom only 18% are black. However, women journalists dominate financial/economic and business reporting in South Africa and 40% of sports reporters are female. These are both journalistic beats that traditionally were the reserve of men.

My own research on race and gender and the transformation of the South African news media over the 10 ten years shows that most journalists and editors acknowledge the need for making the news media more reflective of the society and audience it serves. However, they also acknowledged that transformation is not about numbers and that transformation should focus more on changing the ethos of journalism in South Africa, including practices and contents.

Transformation of structures as well as contents needs to focus more on women. The same is argued for class and social-economic demographics of journalists. Once again this becomes important in order to better engage with the realities of South African society shaped by massive poverty and inequality.

Despite positive developments in terms of achieving racial equity in the newsroom and an increasing awareness of identity and how this impacts on coverage and the stories that journalists work on, dig a little deeper and gender inequities quickly reveal themselves. Many black and female journalists still feel piloted by race and gender and intersections hereof.

A survey of 37 journalists and 280 undergraduate journalism students, male and female, at the University of Johannesburg talks to the fact that there is a strong socialisation process dictating practices as well news content. As such gender differences are quickly overtaken by an ethos that dictates journalistic practices. This is supported by the fact that journalism students, male and female, believe to a higher extent that they can change the news agendas and impact news content than female journalists with two years and more experience from a South African newsroom. The idealism brought into, and often reinforced, through their studies, is seemingly quickly dispelled once entering the newsroom.

This said female journalists working in the newsroom would like to have a greater influence on news coverage and the news agenda. There are also gender differences in how male and female journalists articulate their own role. While male journalists put emphasis on a watchdog role, female journalists instead put the emphasis on engagement with particular communities and argue for the news media to open up to previously neglected groups in society. There seems to be a greater awareness as well as willingness among female journalists to recognize marginalized communities, which are to a great extent are made up of women and children.

South African newsrooms should be lauded for the headways made in gender parity in the newsroom. However, while the numbers might stack up this does not seem to change how stories are covered and the ways in which female journalists influence news agendas. As much as we want to believe change has happened, the truth is uncomfortable. Women do not set or influence news agendas and as such public discourse formation in South Africa is still dominated by men. If we are committed to the broader transformation of our society, we need to get serious about achieving real diversity within our newsrooms and in the contents of our news media.

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