How do the media cover issues of gender?

During the annual 16 Days of No Violence against Women and Children the media will play a vital role in getting the campaign’s messages out to the public.

But what about the other 349 days of the year? How do the media cover issues of gender and gender-based violence when the spotlight’s been turned off?

This was the topic under discussion at a Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking Forum in Johannesburg on Wednesday night. Lisa Vetten, director of the Tshwaranang Women’s Legal Advocacy Centre, chaired the panel, which also featured Colleen Lowe Morna, executive director of Southern African NGO Gender Links; Thabo Leshilo, Avusa’s public editor; Mbuyiselo Botha from Sonke Gender Justice; and Professor Rachel Jewkes, director of the Medical Research Council’s gender and health research unit.

“Is the media part of the problem or part of the solution?” asked Lowe Morna. “It’s a little bit of both. It’s most often part of the problem, but we need to make it part of the solution.”

She referred to the recent incident at Jules High School in Johannesburg, where a grade eight pupil was allegedly drugged and then filmed having sex with two boys on a soccer field at the school.

“A story that contextualises the incident won’t be on the front page, and it’s not what people are going to remember. People remember the screaming headlines,” Lowe Morna said.

Return to basic ethics
During the 16 days of activism a different kind of coverage appears, she observed: the voices of the survivors, who are those most affected by gender-based violence, are heard — the kind of coverage that is not seen in the rest of the year.
Sensationalism is far more prevalent and this “trivialises women’s experiences”, said Lowe Morna.

We need to return to basic ethics, she argued — return to fairness, balance, minimising harm and using women’s own voices to tell the story. The media needs to be part of setting the agenda, Lowe Morna said — “not just report what is but also help to create the vision of a new, different society”.

Leshilo acknowledged that some media approaches to gender and gender-based violence “perpetuate stereotypes” and that “things could be done differently”. He listed cases where similar media activities have caused crimes against humanity: Nazi Germany and the holocaust of the Jews, the Rwandan genocide, and the recent xenophobic violence in South Africa, when some newspapers repeatedly referred to foreigners as “aliens”.

“It is important that we become sensitised to these things,” he said.

It is true that newsrooms are still dominated by men, Leshilo said. But he added that although it is important to have women in high-ranking positions “it does not necessarily follow that all women think the same about gender issues”.

Botha was more upbeat about the role of the media, pointing out how vocal they had been in reporting and denouncing corruption, for example. “Our media in South Africa does not keep quiet,” he said.

‘Malema represents a toxic form of what it means to be a man’
Sonke Gender Justice made headlines when it took ANC Youth League president Julius Malema to the Equality Court for saying that President Jacob Zuma’s rape accuser had had a nice time because she’d stayed for breakfast and asked for taxi money.

“[Malema] represents a toxic form of what it means to be a man — We were putting patriarchy on trial,” Botha told the audience at the forum. The media, he said, were influential in getting society to “confront how toxic it is to say certain things about women — Whether we won or lost [the case] became immaterial, because of the power of the spoken word.”

But “there is still a lack of women’s voices” in news organisations, he said. And the transformation there must be “substantive, not tokenism. This will have an effect on stories.”

Vetten closed off the debate by acknowledging the often difficult circumstances in which the media has to operate. “But it does play a powerful role in spreading information. We need to find ways to harness this to bring about change in our society,” she said.

Keep the powerful accountable

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