Women’s stories in the media: empowerment or frustration?

Written by  Suzgo Chitete

When tragedies  such as hunger, conflict and natural disasters strike, news reports often use a woman’s picture to portray the devastation. This often builds the association between being a woman and being a victim. Such representation brings women into focus as a group in need of support. But does this lead to empowerment or marginalization?

13
August

 

The portrayal of women in the media came under the spotlight at a training for journalists conducted in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam organized by regional chapters of UN Women. The training aimed  to change the narrative and  representation of women in the media.

 

Through a content analysis of various publications, workshop participants demonstrated that women are excluded from coverage. Where women do have representation in the news, they are mostly portrayed negatively.

 

But the example is not limited to Tanzania. Sierra Leonean senior Journalist,  Betty Milton said that in her country the situation was the same. She observed that “women do feature in newspapers or news media but most of the times as victims of gender-based violence, survivors of Ebola or people in need of some form of support.”

 

A 2014 study in Uganda focusing on print media’s portrayal of women painted another gloomy picture. According to the study, men got 70% coverage and were usually associated with serious  news while the 30% of women featured women in soft news such as scandals and entertainment. Where women were portrayed in main news items, it was often as victims.The study pointed to the need for increased numbers of women in newsrooms to influence the situation.

 

Women portrayal and empowerment?

 

The way women are shown in the media was also the focus of discussions among media experts and gender campaigners meeting in Tanzania under the Women Advancing Africa Forum. The campaigners argued that the more women are portrayed as victims, the more an inferiority complex is perpetuated among some women. They proposed equal and fair representation in the media.

 

UN Women’s Tanzania Representative Hodan Addou contended that the power balance between men and women can be achieved if the media took a decision to promote gender sensitive reporting and changed the narrative where women are seen to be weak and vulnerable. In so doing, said Addou, more women are likely to be motivated to participate in development because the negative image in the media lowered their self-esteem.

 

The former President for the Pan-African Parliament, Dr. Gertrude Mongella, is quite blunt about the media as she posits that “the media has harmed women. It gives no space to women and where it does, it shows no strength of women. As long as this is the case more women are likely to lag behind and we know this is about power – to perpetuate male dominance”.

Gertrude Mombela former President Pan African Parliament.jpg

The former director of the Tanzanian Media Women’s Association, Valerie Msoka believes that having more women in the media would translate to more coverage and better representation, but she believes that  men  must also be ambassadors for this noble cause.

 

“Women in newsrooms face a lot of challenges. They are not assigned what is considered serious news. But as tough as the environment maybe let us take every advantage to make a difference; you need to have a third ear and eye, which is that of gender sensitive reporting. That will ensure that women are covered just like other newsmakers,” said Msoka.

 

Award-winning Malawian journalist Teresa Ndanga, who is the chairperson for the Malawi chapter of the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) feels that the lack of coverage of women is as a result of how society is set up.

Ndanga, who also works as Director of News for an influential national private broadcasting station, ZBS, is however optimistic that all is not lost.

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“I will however say that we are slowly seeing a trend where the establishment of beats that cover gender in our newsrooms, which are oftentimes led by female editors, is helping to change the landscape. We are also seeing some positive coverage of women who are making strides in society,” said Ndanga.

 

She said that “as MISA Chair, I will be making deliberate efforts to help change the course. We need to have female journalists in a grouping where they can speak with one voice. I will also facilitate the formation of an association of women in media.”

Adding his voice, University of Malawi Media and Communications Lecturer Jimmy Kainja pointed out that the under-coverage of women in the media is a reflection of society where men are dominant.

 

“It’s important to realize that media does not operate in a vacuum. The people who produce media content are members of the very societies they report on, so any bias in content will reflect societies in which the media represent,” said  Kainja.

 

 “We simply do not have enough women in decision making positions, so when journalists are writing stories (they think that) very few women qualify as newsworthy. And even if we have more women in the media, nothing will change because of patriarchy,” said Kainja.

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