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Q&A: Without More Women, Media Cannot Tell the Full Story

Joan Erakit interviews JULIE BURTON on the challenges facing women in a media industry dominated by men.

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 4 2013 (IPS) - The fact that women are underrepresented in the media industry should surprise few. The severity of this imbalance and its consequences, however, are less obvious. In a new report, the Women’s Media Centre exposes these disparities and their effects on society.

The WMC‘s 2013 annual report on the Status of Women in the U.S. Media also suggested ways to tackle these imbalances, as the WMC itself aims to change the face of media through diversity and powerful content. The report was compiled by Diana Mitsu Klos, an executive media strategist.

Julie Burton, president of Women's Media Centre, discusses the underrepresenation of women in media. Photo courtesy of WMC.

Julie Burton, president of Women’s Media Centre, discusses the underrepresenation of women in media. Photo courtesy of WMC.

The report should serve as “a wake-up call to the media industry — and to consumers — that we are not seeing, hearing, or reading the whole story,” Julie Burton, president of the WMC told IPS. “It is time for a change.”

If the culture of democracy is to be protected, WMC believes that audiences need to understand the severity of this issue. An unequal representation of women in the fields of journalism, film and TV production, radio and even in obituaries curtails efforts to give audiences fair and diverse perspectives.

“Women often aren’t given the opportunity for those plum roles and positions because the tendency is for people in positions of power – generally men – to work with those they know,” Burton added.

To tackle this problem, WMC works to close a persistent gender gap by training women to become media ready, monitoring sexism and unfair media practices, as well as organising campaigns and petitions to keep those in power accountable.

Burton spoke with IPS correspondent Joan Erakit about the report’s findings as well as the challenges facing the media industry in 2013. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What is the relationship between diversifying media and building a healthy democracy?

A: We know women are more than half of the population, but in media, we don’t see or hear them in equal numbers to men. There is a crisis of representation for women. This also holds true for people of colour, who by 2050 will also be a majority in this country.

By deciding who gets to talk, the media defines the story for us. It also presents a picture of what our role is in society. We want media to tell the whole story — and everyone benefits from that. It is also a matter of credibility. Our media and society must fully represent everyone’s voices and contributions if we are to be a healthy democracy.

Q: When a woman graduates from college with a degree in journalism but does not follow up with a job in that field, what do you believe is happening? Are women being encouraged to apply for journalism positions?

A: The report shows that women are landing jobs in public relations and advertising, and that’s good news. But when it comes to newsroom positions, the challenge continues. Landing a job is not only just talent, but also, sometimes, who you know. Those contacts and networks matter.

By deciding who gets to talk, the media defines the story for us. It also presents a picture of what our role is in society.

Our hope is that young women do not get too discouraged and continue to seek opportunities in journalism. In addition, it must be noted that the news industry as a whole is shrinking as more people get their news electronically. Yet women still continue to struggle to gain parity in online media platforms.

Q: Is our current media industry diverse and supportive of women?

A: Right now, 96 percent of all positions of clout in U.S. businesses, including media, are held by men. We can – and we must – do better. We’ve made progress, but there’s still much work to be done.

Media is one of the most powerful forces in our culture and in our economy. It tells us who we are and what we can be. We need to make sure that who defines our story, who tells the story, and what the story is about represent women and men equally.

Q: Do you think our society is built to take a man’s opinion more seriously than a woman’s? Is it a matter of credibility or preference?

A: This week we celebrated the release of the documentary “Makers – Women Who Make America”, which tells the story of how women have shaped America over the past 50 years and the visionary and revolutionary women who have led and written our collective history.

We have made progress, but we have a long way to go. The bad news when it comes to women and media is that even though we know women are more than half of the population, we don’t see or hear them in equal numbers to men. This holds for by-lines by gender and for sources quoted in stories, for women in front of the camera and behind the camera.

It took women 144 hard-fought years to obtain the right to vote. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And men have held virtually all power in our society for a long time. That is changing, but too slowly. The Women’s Media Centre is working very hard to make the status quo one that values women’s and men’s voices equally.

 
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  • Kathy

    Julie Burton made a strong case for building women’s leadership in the media, but she undermined it when she quoted a male at the end (Frederick Douglass). If Burton wants us to believe in women’s leadership, she needs to quote feminist women as authorities and stop using the male as the default voice.

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