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Women and Media

Womens issues are usually not the stuff of which headlines are made. Gender related concerns are rarely given prominence by Indian media. Even when such issues arise the coverage is often sensationalised, trivialised or otherwise distorted. Nandini Prasad, in a study entitled A Pressing Matter: Women in the Press (1993), points out that in QUANTITATIVE TERMS sensational stories of women amount to 56.15% of press coverage. Public policies, legal issues, health and nutrition and social issues together amount to just 12.32%. As against the total news coverage, womens issues receive an average space of 1.83% in four leading English dailies. The same study indicated that in QUALITATIVE TERMS crimes against women, or sensational incidents involving women are the favoured subjects. Women are presented as objects of desire or pity. Atrocities are portrayed with shocking nonchalance. There is almost never any follow up. The study says that, it appears, women as victims are more newsy than women as participants in the developmental process. Those women chosen for special coverage by the media are mostly celebrities, actresses, writers, painters etc. Although women constitute just a little less than half the population of India, they are not seen as an important constituency by most people in decision making positions. Women, especially the poor majority of them often bear the brunt of the chronic problems that plague the nation; but it is rarely that their concerns are brought to centre stage by mass media. Dominant perceptions of what constitutes news are among the most important determinants of coverage. It is generally accepted that events rather than processes make news. A violent episode merits front page coverage while a peaceful demonstration may not make it to the news pages at all. Again, unusual, extraordinary events are considered as newsworthy while normal, everyday life attracts less notice. In a male dominated society, even news makers in most cases can be men and not women. The opinions of the dominant sections often receive more coverage. Most issues which are special concern to women do not make it to the news. As American media analyst Harvey N Molotch explains; Women are not in control of societys institutions. Gaye Tuchman, another media analyst calls the absence of women from news pages as symbolic annihilation. The invisibility and inaudibility of women in society is thus further perpetuated and enhanced by the media. Ammu Joseph and Kalpana Sharma in their edited work Media and womens issues make a review of over ten years of newspaper coverage in India on womens issues. The study revealed that the issues that really caught media attention were dowry deaths, rape and sati. Sex determination tests and female foeticide received some coverage because of the concerned efforts of those involved in the campaign against these practices. However, the latter issues did not excite as much attention as the other, more dramatic issues in which violence was either inherent or implicit. Issues related to womens work, health, position in society and experiences within the family, the everyday conditions of their lives and the deprivations and tyranny they are routinely subjected to prompted far less coverage. Even when they infrequently made it to the news pages, it was because they were referred to by one or other of the traditional sources of news such as the government, the police, parliament, the courts, national or international associations, well-known personalities, conferences, workshops etc. Formal news business today is not just the powerful talking to the less powerful, but essentially men talking to men. The womens pages are a deliberate exception. Here women who work for men talk to women. As far as pages devoted to hard news are concerned it is mostly a mans world. The advent of women reporters and the presence of some senior women journalists in positions of responsibility have made a significant, though limited, difference to the coverage of womens issues by the press. Another positive indication is the increasing interaction

between the press and womens groups. Womens groups in India have been able to project at least parts of their struggle fairly effectively through the press. Nevertheless, the gender perspective has not yet been properly integrated into the process of newsgathering. Thus even when an incident touches the lives of women, their views are rarely sought. Even when an issue concerns them directly their voices are rarely heard. A study of coverage of five landmark issues concerning women, covered by five leading national dailies such as The Hindu, The Indian Express, The Hindustan Times, The Statesman and The Times of India over a period of 10 years pointed out to the following trends in coverage of womens issues. 1. Quantum of coverage: The study found an upward progression in the coverage of womens issues over the ten years under study. The increase in volume of coverage is certainly good news for Indian press 2. The proximity factor: The study indicated that proximity had a definite impact on the extent of coverage. Issues and events related to women that take place in and around cities find it easier to make it to the news pages, while coverage of rural women related news receive step motherly treatment. 3. Dominant norms: Womens issues related crime, violence etc received preference over more serious issues and trends like female infanticide, equal pay for equal work, reservation of women, domestic violence etc. Editorial comments on the latter have always been few and far in between. 4. Male perspective: It was found that even the few women related news items that made it to the news pages have been the male view of news. The emphasis was on aspects that would interest the primary consumers- the male readers. 5. Structured ad-hocism: The dissonance between the editorial position taken by some newspapers and the bias in their news coverage or choice of headlines apart from the advertisements they publish- reveals a central feature of the press in India: structured ad hocism. The hard news are constantly commented upon while the soft news covered and commented upon according to time, willingness and space availability. 6. Women journalists: The increase in the number of senior women journalists has had a noticeable impact on the number of editorials written on women related issues. However, but for a handful of women such as Chitra Subramanyam, Bargha Dutt, Dionne Bunsha, Shobha De etc the Indian press continue to be male dominated. It is rarely that women with enough knowledge and passion for the issues of rural women make it to the top rung of reporters in major media. 7. Newspaper style: When analysing the style of coverage of women related reports it becomes obvious that there are sensational overtones in papers such as The Times of India, while the more orthodox papers like the Hindu and Statesman rarely trivialise violence against women. In the regional press too the trend is more often at victimising the victim. The news channels especially show any restraint even when handling sensitive issues such as abduction, rape etc. 8. Patriarchy unquestioned: A close study of the Indian media reveal that few articles and none of the editorials question the fundamentally patriarchal structure of Indian society or the family. In conclusion we can say that although the press has played a significant role in publicising issues which readily conform to the traditional definitions of newsworthiness, other equally important womens issues that are less newsy continue to be marginalised. In other words what we call the feminisation of news process has not yet taken place. This would involve paying as much attention to the process as to the event and making a deliberate attempt to seek the views of the inarticulate majority instead of routinely reporting on the prominent and the powerful.