Building an Inclusive Media

By Louise Morris, Central America Women’s Network

Feminists from all across Europe came together on the 14th May, 2014 in Brussels, Belgium to listen to the research and innovative work of organisations in Nicaragua, UK, Spain, Austria, Tanzania, Colombia, Namibia and South Africa.

The vibrant discussions covered many of the key criticisms facing the media today. A hot topic was media’s historic and continual inability to represent women fairly, to encourage women media professionals and to leave behind damaging stereotypes of women in the press. As the pitfalls of mainstream media were discussed, the conference also focussed on the strong potential of alternative media to promote gender equality and as a tool to empower women.

Four speakers inspired those present with their practical experience and investigative work on Building an Inclusive Media.

The journalist and anthropologist Caroline Haidacher presented findings from her recently published study, “Armed with Pen and Microphone: Media as Tools of Social Development”. Caroline raised the point that despite international demands for more access and equal representation in the media, there is still pervasive inequality, with very few women in decision making positions in the media. Community media was extolled for its work to meet demands and challenge stereotypes with global case studies of successful initiatives referenced. Such as Colombia’s Organización Femenina Popular (OFP), operating since 1972 who have continued to use print, radio and television to criticises human rights abuses and the systemic attacks on women during their country’s consistent armed struggles. Caroline added that “Colombia is considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists worldwide and victims are mostly those who are critical of the political system”.

Helen Dixon, a feminist writer and consultant who was part of the team working on Nicaraguan organisation Puntos de Encuentro’s socio-dramas, described her experiences of using mass media to challenge dominant narratives and change patriarchal behaviour. Television has been recognised as a powerful tool for socialisation as it can visually represent behavioural choices and their consequences, as well as allowing a certain distancing from one’s own culture – encouraging the viewer to reflect critically on the difficult issues in their daily life that are normally experienced unquestioned – see CAWN’s report: Subverting Sexism: Using Socio-Dramas to Socialise. However, Helen noted the necessity for organisations’ initiatives to be combined with social movements for long term benefits.

Derogatory print media practices were exposed through journalist and Latin American Bureau editor Sue Branford’s presentation of the study: “Exploitation and Trafficking of Women: Critiquing Narratives During the London Olympics 2012”. The tabloids in particular inflated the story of an increase in trafficking and prostitution around the Olympics, despite lack of concrete evidence. Speaking as a journalist Sue affirmed: “I think it’s difficult to counter these narratives directly, and to demand from editors that they take gender more into account, I think we have to monitor our own work, be aware of the problems ourselves… and often frame the stories in a way that will appeal to the news values of our editors, who are generally men.”

Lucia Ruíz, member of Nosotras en el Mundo – Association for Communication and Development in Spain described the difficulties she has faced in encouraging women to participate in community radio and in establishing a women’s only programme but mentioned how the station has grown from “a local radio, to a global network.”

The productive and engaging discussions led to participants improving their breadth and depth of knowledge. One male participant commented on the opposition Lucia faced from men at the community radio station about having a programme dedicated exclusively to women, saying that “they don’t realise that the ‘men only’ area already exists in the media” referencing his job as a screenwriter in a predominantly male environment.

Organisations learned from successful international media endeavours how they may use both: use alternative media to increase awareness of women’s rights, but also how to strategise to achieve further coverage of their issues in the mainstream media. This was particularly evident through the use of “bang” style journalism, where activists run an intense campaign bombarding every media outlet simultaneously over a short period of time with information and stories about an issue, and has been successfully utilised by the Tanzania Women’s Association (TAMBA).

The meeting suggested that fruitful work tackling some of the sexist mainstream media narratives could be achieved through the collaboration of the women’s movement network. We are at a critical moment in the women’s rights movement and need to strengthen networks and share expertise to make a tangible impact on introducing a gender perspective to news stories, media practices and across communication for development programmes.