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Is an End to Media Sexism in Sight? Meeting the Future of Journalism

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In January 2012, Equality Now and partners Eaves, Object, Turn Your Back on Page 3 and the End Violence Against Women Coalition presented testimony and submissions to the Leveson Inquiry using everyday examples to highlight the pervasive sexual objectification and harmful representation of women in the British press.  This was followed up later in the year with our ‘Just the Women’ report (nudity warning), an evaluation of 11 UK newspapers over a two week period and the subsequent setting up of the ‘Everyday Media Sexism’ website, which highlights ongoing examples of sexism in the media.  Although some UK politicians themselves have not exactly led by example, we await the next political development relating to our recommendations, many of which were echoed by Lord Justice Leveson. 

One of our proposals is that media students should receive training on issues relating to the ethical portrayal of women in the media, as discussed (among other things) by Alexandra Topping in The Guardian in late 2011.  I tested this out in real life recently when I gave a guest lecture to a fantastic group of first-year journalism students at the University of Roehampton in South West London.  I presented our ‘Just the Women’ report and discussed issues such as the culture of victim-blaming in cases of violence against women.  Their questions raised some of the key concerns we’re eager to talk about surrounding the role of the media in protecting the rights of women and girls.

“Should the media not reflect society though, rather than try to change it?”

“The media has a particularly powerful place within society.  It both informs and reflects it.  As the next generation, you will have the potential to make changes and have an impact.  We don’t want to stifle freedom of the press, but we do want it to be fair and not discriminate.  Some elements of the press play into the myth that rape is carried out by the ‘stranger in the bush’, when in reality most rape is committed by men known to the victim.  Even in such cases, victims themselves are frequently blamed in the press as the guilty party for having been too alluring, having had too much alcohol, worn too short a skirt.  Journalists can have an influence on challenging these myths and stereotypes so that when these cases are heard by a jury in court, the focus stays on the facts and is not prejudiced by any preconceptions of jury members, who may have been influenced by negative portrayals in the press of how the victim ‘should have behaved’”. 

“How do you think women should be represented?”

“As real people, with lots of different interests and sides to them - both good as well as not so appealing.  Good journalism strives for balance and diversity.  We respond and adjust our thinking based on media portrayals and discussions.  Women shown purely as body parts limits their options and aspirations.  Our issue is about telling women that they are valued in a different way, not just on the way they look, but that they are whole, complex people - and that all women are represented.  At the moment, so many older, minority and black women and women with disabilities are almost entirely invisible from the mainstream press”.

“Do people not sexualise themselves - is there not a problem in the way people promote themselves in a sexual way?”

“We are all products of our own environment, which has become increasingly sexualised over time.  The cumulative demeaning of women has created a situation where women are treated as interchangeable body parts in some parts of the press.  Even discussion of women politicians is frequently about their clothes or their breasts rather than their policies.  This affects all aspects of society where women and girls will be making choices based on how they think they will be valued.  The fact that we rarely see women in the press being valued for their diverse and considerable accomplishments is a problem”.

The work of our coalition has resonated keenly with many professional journalists too.  Kira Cochrane in The Guardian suggested that “it's sobering to think that the most prominent image of a woman in our papers each day is of a teenager or twentysomething in her pants”.  Meanwhile, after the Leveson report was published, Joan Smith in the Independent suggested that one if its most welcome recommendations “is that groups representing women should be able to make complaints to the new regulator”.  However, some others missed the point that what we are requesting relates to higher professional standards, which safeguard our democracy, but for all of us - including women - rather than any attempt to silence or dictate to anyone.  The Leveson Inquiry was set up to examine the ethics and conduct of the British press and whether these ever run against the public interest.  It clearly runs contrary to the public interest to allow news reporting which has a negative effect on women’s access to justice and cuts out large segments of the population from public debate.

Globally, women and girls are increasingly demanding their basic right to a life which is free from sexism and in which they have equal access to justice.  Laura Bates’ ‘Everyday Sexism’ website is symbolic of a movement from which there is no coming back.  Because we live in a world where media communication is often at the centre of the way we see ourselves, change cannot happen on a broader level unless the media is on board too and understands that improved media ethics does not deny press freedom.  Eliminating gender stereotypes and promoting a more comprehensive portrayal of women would be a significant contribution the press could make to address real issues such as freedom of women to obtain justice against violence, to hold political office, to play a public role, to develop healthy body images - or to become a newspaper editor!

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