A few years ago, this reviewer was discussing women’s representation in the media at a course on gender. The session focused on the invisibility of women’s issues in mainstream media and the inadequate space in the media for meaningful news or analytical reports on the status of women. However, a few lecturers argued that women were in fact well represented in the print and television media – women achievers, they pointed out, especially in sports and business, are featured in the news, while women protagonists dominate the television entertainment sector, albeit in stereotypical soap operas. In addition, women columnists and news anchors have drilled neat holes in the glass ceiling. In a post-liberalised media world, this might be considered reason enough for the gathered lecturers to celebrate. But I was left with a sense of disquiet.
Despite the seeming visibility of women in the media, their representation in the news amount to little more than tabloid reportage, of which there are abundant examples. Recent ones include the disclosure of a police report filed by a student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences who alleged that she had been gang-raped; the unethical identification of rape victims in Chhattisgarh; the media’s complicity in maligning the murdered schoolgirl Aarushi Talwar; or the media circus made of the personnel dilemma of Gudiya (now deceased), who was forced by a panchayat and religious leaders to return to her first husband, a soldier named Arif, even though she had remarried during his five-year incarceration in a jail in Pakistan following the Kargil conflict.
Missing Half the Story attempts to address such problematic reporting, and reiterates that it is not merely the representation itself but the process of representation that matters. The book uses three approaches, neatly divided into three sections, to tackle the issue: a critique of gender-insensitive journalism in present-day India; an introduction to the ideological underpinnings of gender in society; and a manual on journalistic writing from a ‘gendered’ perspective, which reasserts that the practice of ‘journalism as if gender matters’ is not only necessary but possible. Kalpana Sharma, the book’s editor, makes a case for an ‘objective’ slant towards gender that will actually make news more balanced. In the introduction, she argues that the ‘feminisation’ of news – with a focus on women and the ‘genderisation’ of journalism – whereby journalism as a whole will incorporate a perspective on women – is more important than merely including the ‘women’s angle’.
Other contributors to the volume include Ammu Joseph, Sameera Khan and Himal contributing editors Laxmi Murthy and Rajashri Dasgupta. Joseph and Murthy introduce the reader to concepts such as the ‘gendered lens’, patriarchy and feminism, as well as to the multiple strands of thought within the women’s movement and the constantly evolving strategies that the media needs to adopt when dealing with ‘women’s’ issues. Referring to the controversies surrounding the South African runner Caster Semenya and, closer to home, the Indian sprinter Santhi Soundarajan, both of whom were stripped of medals for failing to pass a gender test, Murthy goes beyond the binaries of sex and points out that the notion of ‘woman’ includes both sex (physical attributes) and gender (social and cultural attributes). Categorising sex as gender, she argues, comes in the way of more informed reportage, and damns those who identify themselves as transgender, intersex, transvestite or queer. It is important, therefore, for the media to develop an understanding and empathy towards the choices people exercise in living out their multiple identities.
Also included here is a style-sheet for gender-sensitive journalism, updating the non-sexist language underscored during the women’s movement of the 1980s. It points out, among other things, that a rigid use of terms such as male and female is undesirable, as it distances the writer from people while reducing them to a generic status – more useful, perhaps, when describing animals or insects.
Following the framing of the main issues in the first section of the book, the second section examines media reportage on environment, politics, health and crime, and suggests how these issues can be covered from in a way that is more sensitive to gender concerns. For instance, Sameera Khan discusses the issue of how the media portrays women survivors of crime solely as victims, and focuses on the unethical tendency to name them, violating their privacy. In another chapter, Sharma explores how women are marginalised in development discourse – instead of talking to women, the media typically reproduces press releases, reports and statistics about them. In all such stories, Sharma urges a conscious effort to interview at least one or two women on how they have been effected by developmental, environmental or political changes.
Joseph delves into the coverage of disasters and conflicts, areas in which, again, women’s voices often go unrecorded. While this chapter could have dealt with women and conflict in far greater detail, Joseph does succeed in drawing our attention to the fact that ignoring this issue altogether often results in a very skewed understanding of conflict. Recently, for instance, this has been seen in journalists expressing befuddlement at women who have been involved in throwing stones at security forces in Srinagar.
Rajashri Dasgupta, writing on health care and the media, points out that informed reportage on the health-care system is lacking, with almost no widespread public debate on drugs, vaccines or screening procedures, or on issues related to reproductive health or clinical trials. Media obsession with medical devices, and the avalanche of information on health care for hair loss, obesity, infertility, menopause or osteoporosis, she says, has actually ignored aspects such as poverty or unemployment, thereby bypassing the problems facing a majority of women – from anaemia, maternal mortality, hunger or malnutrition.
Finally, Missing Half the Story devotes a whole section to reproducing articles on water, health, politics and other issues written from a gender-sensitive viewpoint, offering a handy reference for journalists. Culled from websites (Infochange, India Together) and wire services (Inter-Press Service), the selection has only two articles from mainstream media – Sharma’s column in The Hindu newspaper on Hillary Clinton and Sameera Khan’s article on HIV-positive women in the lifestyle magazine Verve. This section could have been strengthened with more examples from mainstream media, focusing on how it is still possible for editors to take into account gender concerns despite market pressures to stick to lifestyle and celebrity-oriented news and features.
It is also unfortunate that the book does not look into visual representations, including insensitive headlines, poor display or unethical photographs. For instance, in coverage on the molestation of two young women in Bombay on New Year’s Eve in 2008, many media outlets included photos of the girls that were more tantalising than informative. Similarly, news magazines that covered stories of rape survivors in Chhattisgarh likewise pixellated their faces, but did not hide other clear identity markers such as their clothes or surrounding houses, thus seriously compromising their privacy.
Any discussion of patriarchy and gender in the media would be incomplete without a reference to media structures. How much of the media do women own or control? And when they do occupy positions of power in the media – as owners, producers, film or television directors, news anchors or editors – what perspectives do they bring to the table? When women read newspapers or watch news on television, what exactly are they reacting to? Missing Half the Story largely missed these issues, which could have offered more depth to the historical perspective provided in the first section. Nevertheless, this book is a significant first step towards getting the story right, even though there might still be a long way to go.
~ Geeta Seshu is a journalist and commentator living in Bombay.