By Hannah Storm
Ethical journalism is rooted in humanity, built on transparency and advances work that is accountable.
We cannot have truly ethical journalism until gender is on the agenda in a fair and sensitive way, in newsroom practices: be that in the people we hire, retain and promote, or in the work we produce.
Gender is not just a women’s issue. We all benefit from rejecting harmful stereotypes, clichés and prejudice. We all gain from greater balance and context, and from amplifying the voices and experiences of vulnerable communities which have traditionally been marginalised.
In my new role at the Ethical Journalism Network, I hope we can support partners everywhere to integrate ethical gender considerations into their news reports and newsrooms, and to recognize the roles they can play in positively shaping public discourse.
Change can’t and won’t happen overnight. But it needs to happen quicker than it has been.
In 2015, the Global Media Monitoring Project warned: “Progress towards equality of women and men in the news media has virtually ground to a halt.”
The GMMP is carried out on one day every five years. Across the 114 countries analysed in its last study, women accounted for 24 per cent of those heard, read about or seen in newspapers, television and radio news.
The figure was unchanged from 2010. It was scarcely better online, with women making up 26 per cent of people in internet news stories and media news tweets combined.
The number of women reporting stories was less than two out of five: the same as in 2005. It will be interesting to see if the 2020 figures differ.
The #MeToo movement has raised awareness of the need for more gender sensitivity across the board, but I don’t think there has yet been the sea change needed.
The International Women’s Media Foundation has a number of pioneering projects to support women journalists. A handful of programmes have emerged with a specific gender focus, like France 24’s The 51 Per Cent.
The BBC’s Outside Source ensures that at least 50 per cent of its experts are women, something it ensures through self-monitoring. In Poland, Newsmavens collates news from across Europe and reframes it from the perspective of women journalists.
In late 2017, the Wall Street Journal announced an effort to overturn gender inequality at the paper. Several years ago Bloomberg initiated a strategy which now includes the family-friendly policies, a mentoring scheme, media training for women executives across different industries, and an index measuring gender equality for more than 100 companies.
But despite these – and a number of other – efforts, outdated stereotypes continue to be perpetrated, often focusing on a woman’s appearance or associations instead of her ability or achievements.
This is particularly the case when women reach positions of influence in male-dominated industries.
In August 2015, the Associated Press published a tweet, linked to an article about the trial of Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt, which read: “Amal Clooney, actor’s wife, representing Al-Jazeera journalist accused in Egypt of ties to extremists.”
The tweet was later deleted, but not before it had implied that one of the world’s most successful international human rights lawyers was only newsworthy because of her husband.
In January Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking elected woman in US history, resumed her role as Speaker of the House of Representatives. The New York Times tweeted a photograph, captioned: “Nancy Pelosi, wearing a hot pink dress, ascended to the marble dais.” Later the tweet was deleted, with the paper calling it “poorly framed”.
It’s not just appearance or association that implies that the achievements of some women are an aberration. It’s common to read demeaning language with gendered connotations, like “hysterical”, “feisty”, “bossy”, “whining”.
For women of colour or those who belong to other marginalised communities, it’s often worse. Stereotypical language is directed against men too and can be just as damaging in terms of reinforcing stereotypes, especially for men of colour.
This language, labelling, reliance on tropes and stereotypes is lazy journalism and, at its most egregious, this can have a significant effect on public perception and the individuals involved. This is particularly the case in the coverage of gender-based violence.
As a survivor of sexual assault, I have been working to help journalists understand the harm caused by perpetuating stereotypes, by a lack of context, or by using inappropriate language and images. I hope to be able to develop this work further at the EJN.
All too often, the media shapes the narrative as if the abuse was the fault of the individual affected. Survivors are approached, identified, portrayed and interviewed without consideration of the pattern, context or scale of sexual violence.
All too often, the language casts the perpetrator as a monster and not a human who chose to commit a crime, and describes the abuse with euphemisms that apply to consensual sex and not an act that is instead an abuse of power.
All too often there are questions about why individuals stay silent for years, only to be objectified and disbelieved if they are brave enough to share their story.
It’s so important that as journalists we know how to report ethically on such a relevant and sensitive issue as gender-based violence.
If we want to look at changing the way the media reports on women and the issues which are important to them, we can’t ignore the constitution of newsrooms in Europe and North America, and the unconscious and conscious biases held by an industry which is systemically male, white and privileged.
Women frequently lack other female role models and, without the support they need to break through the glass ceiling, the pipeline to progression is well and truly broken.
For the most part, women tend to be more vulnerable, less able to call the shots, and more likely to be exposed to abuses of power, both in the newsroom and in the field.
In my previous role at the International News Safety Institute, I often heard from men about the extra risks faced by women in hostile environments, rather than the extra perspectives they could bring. But, sadly, women are still regarded as the problem rather than the solution.
I have heard anecdotes of women being taken off stories because their male colleagues were not to be trusted or because they were brave enough to speak out about their experiences of harassment and well-meaning editors thought they were not capable of covering the same kind of stories again.
Women do face a greater likelihood of abuse than men. But this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t report. Far from it. Without women, we lack the voices that represent one half of the world’s population. When those voices are silenced, there is a significant knock-on effect.
One of the most wide-ranging current threats to women journalists is online harassment. They are much more likely to be attacked online than their male colleagues – and, when they are, this is often sexualised.
This takes its toll, especially because the abuse often hits when women are most vulnerable, like first thing in the morning when they turn on their phones. I know many women who are now self-censoring, whilst others are considering giving up journalism.
The best and most successful ethical journalism understands the importance of collaboration and amplification. The volume of a hundred voices resonates more than one solitary shout.
Until women are valued in the same way as men, there can be no equality, be that in the newsroom or in the words and images we use to shatter stereotypes and truly reflect the communities we serve. And until that is the case, I really believe that we cannot really call ourselves ethical, no matter what our gender.
- This article was originally published by the Ethical Journalism Network as part of their annual publication: “Saving the news: Ethics and the fight for the future of journalism”. Hannah Storm became the new Director and CEO of the Ethical Journalism Network in April 2019. She joined the International News Safety Institute (INSI) in 2010, becoming its director in 2012. Before joining INSI, Storm spent more than a decade working as a journalist for television and radio, online and print for outlets including the BBC, The Times, Reuters and ITN, and Oxfam.