In the 60 days leading up to the local government elections, gender issues were only covered in 12 of more than 4–600 news stories in more than 70 print, broadcast and online sources, including community media.
The criteria for inclusion were based on a broad interpretation of the issues associated with gender – for instance, women in politics, education for girls, female candidates, women’s health, gender-based violence and LGBTI advocacy. The negligible news coverage about the importance of these voices and issues is concerning – the coverage amounted to a minuscule 0.002% of news stories about the elections. The news stories that did deal with gender issues featured pleas to include more women in local politics (eight stories), the sexism of politicians (three) and the lack of party support for LGBTI issues (one story).
Media Monitoring Africa is invested in the diverse, equal and fair representation of individuals in media. Only if reporting is unbiased, accurate and diverse can the media live up to their potential to drive democratic efforts and facilitate productive social exchange. Gender equality in the media is a crucial factor in this pursuit, particularly because women’s voices and gender interests are underrepresented. As past research has indicated, this is worryingly true during election periods.
Gender representation in media means the ways in which individuals become (mis)represented according to the roles we assign them culturally and how this leads to a perpetual disadvantaging. Gender identification and performance (masculine, feminine, fluid, other), as well as sociocultural marginalisation (such as women in domesticity), collectively contribute to the dominant perception that women’s participation in politics is not as valuable as that of men, and that gender issues are not a main concern.
Not only do we need female councillors in various municipalities, we also need to put women’s experiences and their needs back in focus.
To illustrate the omission of gender interests in the election coverage, the graph demonstrates that this election became yet another platform for party politics and campaigning and only a few stories centred on human rights issues such as health, education, poverty and gender.
Although 12 news stories dealt with the topic of gender, these reports were not exactly exemplary for putting the spotlight on women’s interests: the journalists remained neutral and engaged in event-based reporting, yet opinion pieces, analyses and critical interpretations were missing altogether. The majority of media did not have a single report dedicated to women’s interests in this election.
News stories that marginally deal with women’s requests for more women in politics need to be amplified by investigative pieces that uncover the needs and interests of voters. Why is it that journalists do not ask women about their stakes in the election? Why is it that party leaders get away with merely acknowledging that gender parity exists?
This perpetual poor coverage on gender issues is a reminder that journalists are neglecting their duty to represent a diversity of voices and move these important social conversations to the forefront.
With women accounting for 51% of the current population, a stark underrepresentation like this is disproportional. It means the majority of South Africans do not see their issues represented in the media. This is truly undemocratic.
Limited media coverage on gender issues is illustrative of a downward trend. Compared with the (already minimal) coverage of gender during the 2011 local government elections (1%) and the 2014 national and provincial elections (1%), the 2016 municipal elections have essentially erased women’s interests and gender issues from the ballot.
The danger of this is that the amount of news coverage directly mediates the salience these issues have in public opinion. In other words, if the media do not report often about women’s interests and gender-related concerns, we may not think that these issues exist.
Gender has never been at the forefront of election campaigns, but this further decrease in airtime and ink is indicative of the fundamental lack of comprehension of the importance of gender dimensions in areas such as education, health, employment and crime.
At the tail end of this problem is the potential for gender topics to be wiped from public deliberation, legislation and policy. Not informing South Africans about issues and interests pertinent to our society hinders the goals of equality and democracy at all levels. We need to amplify gender interests in the public mind by asking questions and reporting on issues that reflect the lived experiences of our population.
Giuliana Sorce is a visiting Penn State Scholar at Media Monitoring Africa