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(DV) Marshall: Media Exclusion of Women as Sources Impedes Meaningful Reform







Media Exclusion of Women as Sources
Impedes Meaningful Reform

by Lucinda Marshall
June 7, 2005

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Laudable as the goals of “media reform” may be, until the voices of women (as well as other silenced groups) are fully and equitably included, it will remain a deluded (mostly white) guy buzzword, self-limiting in its scope of meaningful change. The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s recently released study, "The Gender Gap: Women Are Still Missing as Sources for Journalists," documents the painfully limited use of women as news sources and makes clear the serious and pervasive nature of the problem. The study found, among other things, that female voices are most noticeably missing on cable news programs and stories dealing with foreign affairs. The results of the study clearly indicate that women as sources of information are essentially invisibilized to a large extent. Inasmuch as foreign affairs comprise a significant portion of the news, it is, as Sheila Gibbons of Women’s eNews put it:

“[E]asy to see that failing to include women as sources in that coverage would dramatically reduce their presence in the news, and block our perception of them as people with ideas and expertise.”

Gibbons cites The White House Project which, “found that women's authority as leaders is often undermined by gender disparities in coverage of women, including the low numbers of women interviewed on political talk shows.” 

Gibbons also gives short shrift to the belief by many that there isn’t a problem, that it is simply a case of most experts being men. By example she points to the coverage of abortion and the right to choose and the obvious fallacy of men knowing more about this than women. (1)

Professor Cynthia Enloe of Clark University refers to this as the “culture of expertise,” pointing out that, “The narrow and naïve conventional definitions of relevant knowledge produce a shallow questioning of institutional practices that rarely gets to the core of why that institution’s elite as well as rank-and-file staffers think about the world in the patriarchal ways they do.”

Enloe also points to the “presumption of triviality” which, while she applies it to issues that affect women, can and should also be applied to the inclusion of women’s voices in the media. By example, Enloe reminds us of the ongoing ignoring of sexual violence against women in refugee camps and “how otherwise well-meaning organizations convince themselves that certain conditions naturally fall below the collective radar.”  It is a safe bet that if women played an equal role in determining what news is, this would not be the case. (2)

Omitting/silencing women’s voices is certainly not anything new. Addressing the recent Media Reform Conference in St. Louis, Malkia Cyril of the Youth Media Council deftly exposed the historic and deliberate roots of exclusion in the media:

When we speak of media reform, the intentions of the ‘framers’ and constitutional interpretations offer incomplete answers to the questions: What is a free press and how is it guaranteed? We’ve heard that Jefferson and Madison understood the importance of an astute press in creating the foundation for a strong democracy and protection against elite rule. What remains both invisible and undeniable in the debate about U.S. media is the colonial context of its birth. As the ‘founding fathers’ were documenting their concept of a free press, they were also building a slaveholding capitalist economy and a white nationalist politic that would entrench media policies and practices for centuries to come.

Cyril goes on to name the myths that we use to validate our perception of a free press and eloquently makes the case for why they must be dispelled:

By adopting a raced, classed and gendered lens to examine issues of media content, access and infrastructure, we can dispel three dangerous myths. The first myth is that the U.S. media used to be more democratic and has become less so over time. The fact is, the U.S. media system was born of colonial conquest and imperial intrusion, calling the democratic foundations of this press into direct question. For people of color, women, queer people and young folks, there has never been a free press, and without racial, economic and gender justice, there never will be. The second myth is that communication rights are inherently individual civil rights guaranteed by citizenship. What of the millions of undocumented people forced by economic and political conditions to immigrate to this country? What of the millions of incarcerated men, women, and children whose citizenship rights are severed by confinement? What of the black, brown, female, queer and young people whose basic civil rights require ongoing movements to secure and even then are always in question. Where there is no real mechanism to guarantee civil rights, citizenship offers no protection or guarantee of communication rights. The third and final myth we must dismantle is that we can achieve a free press without also working to end racism, sexism and class oppression. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before the current trends of consolidation, re-regulation in the corporate interest and corporate control, the media was simultaneously a tool for civic engagement and a threat to the life and liberty of marginalized communities. In a free-market society organized by class, race and gender, no press can be truly free unless the people who use it and are impacted by it are also free. (3)

Well-meaning though the predominant voices of the media reform movement may be, in her essay, “Time for Progressives to Grow Up: Beyond Lakoff’s Strict Father vs. Nurturant Parent, A Strong Community Manifesto,” Frances Moore Lappe points out that their visions are still trapped in the hierarchal thinking that initially created the problem.  As Lappe explains,

[T]he frame Lakoff identifies with progressives -- “nurturant parent” -- itself needs critical thought.  The question few seem to be asking is: Are “strict father” (Right) versus “nurturant parent” (Left) our only choices, or can we move beyond the nuclear family metaphors?

Any parent frame fails the test; it is inevitably one-directional, and hierarchical. So let’s bury the family metaphor and search for a more robust frame -- one that suggests communities that work for all because they are connected, responsible, compassionate and therefore strong.”

Lappe goes on to point out that, “Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high. Besides, few of us -- unless we’re scared into it -- are prepared simply to take orders.” (4)

Clearly, to enable and move toward the connected community frame that Lappe suggests, all voices must be heard and valued.

Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the founder of the Feminist Peace Network,  which publishes Atrocities, a bulletin documenting violence against women throughout the world. Her work has been published in numerous publications including, Awakened Woman, Alternet, Dissident Voice, Off Our Backs, The Progressive, Rain and Thunder, Z Magazine, Common Dreams and Information Clearinghouse.

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Other Articles by Lucinda Marshall

* Military Pollution: The Quintessential Universal Soldier
* Honoring the Lives of Women in Perilous Times
* Why We are Horrified by the Destructive Forces of Nature but Accept Our Own Violence
* The Financial Immorality of American Generosity
* The Surreality Show: Stranger than Fiction
* (Not) In The News: Media Culpability in the Continuum of Violence Against Women

* Yanar Mohammed on the Impact of the US Occupation on the Lives of Iraqi Women
* The Misogynist Undercurrents of Abu Ghraib


1. "Multi-media tune-out: Ignoring female expertise Across all news media, women get overlooked and ignored as sources" by Sheila Gibbons (Women’s eNews), Working for Change, May 25, 2005.

2. The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire by Cynthia Enloe (University of California Press, Los Angeles, CA, 2004) pp. 234-235.

3. "Justice By Any Name" by Malkia Cyril, Free Press and Media Reform Conference Opening Plenary Speech, May 13, 2005.

4. "Time for Progressives to Grow Up: Beyond Lakoff’s Strict Father vs. Nurturant Parent, A Strong Community Manifesto" by Frances Moore Lappe, Guerrilla News Network, May 26, 2005.