Ellen

Today’s news is tomorrow’s history. Duh, right? But whose history is it? I’m proud that I’ve been writing columns for 30 years; I provide a unique voice and point of view. When considering where you get your news, ask yourself, “What’s missing?” Are women represented? Whose points of view are missing? Check out the U.K. Guardian or Al Jazeera for a different take on current events.

The organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) used to publish statistics about female pundits. They no longer have current numbers, but women only comprised about 20% of all published opinion pieces in the recent past, equally split between conservative and progressive. The bottom line is that female-identified folks are simply not covered in the media like male-identified (usually cis white) people.

That shocking stat results from the unconscious — and sometimes deliberate — belief by male editors that women are not newsworthy or even interesting. Down the line, fewer women’s voices will be heard, which hinders the public from understanding — exemplified by opinion pieces like mine — that women are not a monolithic group. I know it’s shocking, but women are all different and, just like men, do not think alike. Our approaches to covering significant news events can also be different from men’s.

I have an example from my own journalistic life. I was the only woman from Southern California covering the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing. The coverage from major outlets was almost zilch, except for CNN’s Judy Woodruff and her excellent series on what happened there. I had to attend on my own dime, aided by a few small grants. Judy’s and my reports were utterly different from what little coverage there was from the male reporters.

I saw all-male camera crews prowling the fairgrounds where the conference was held, “looking” for news. Aha! One news crew found a demonstration. In no time, other crews would arrive to cover the event, as demonstrations make “good TV;” they often have action, loud noise, and conflict. Peaceful negotiating, talking about solutions, and networking make “bad TV;” they usually have little or no action, soft talking, and conflict resolution.

Many news teams get their start by covering sports and wars, so-called “masculine” activities. All-male news crews don’t know how to cover women’s activities: they often don’t know the issues, don’t know the questions, and don’t have the data.

Imagine if I were assigned to cover an American football game. I know nothing about football! But I want the job, so I’d rely on things I did know about. My football piece would have interviews with cheerleaders, other women who are clueless about football, the mothers, wives and sisters of football players, and perhaps a discussion about the design of the stadium. I would do my best, but it would give short-shrift to football aficionados, who would feel frustrated or bored by my coverage.

If I had to cover the actual game with no preparation, I’d probably say something like, “They ran out onto the grass, circled up, grunted, yelled, and then lined up. One guy heaved the ball between his legs and another caught it, then threw it. Sometimes a guy kicked the ball, and they all ran like crazy, knocking each other over. And when it was over, everybody on one side cheered, while the others weren’t happy. Then they all went home.”

That is what it’s like to send people out to cover stories about women’s issues who couldn’t care less or know nothing about the topic. They don’t know the lingo, they don’t know what the “news” is, and they don’t know the connections with other issues. On an international level, some male crews are, by custom, not even allowed to speak to women. How could they possibly get an objective, informed story even if the desire to do so existed?

I was standing on a walkway in Beijing when a woman from Southeast Asia approached me.

“You are press?” she asked. “Yes, I am,” I replied.

She grabbed my hand and said, “Follow me, please.”

I asked her why. She said that her group was having a demonstration for the press. I asked her if her delegation had planned on demonstrating before they came to China.

“No,” she said, “We demonstrate because that’s what American journalists like.”

That is why the coverage of the U.N. Conference on Women was, and continues to be, either sophomoric or non-existent. Even years later, it’s an important event to have the world. The news that came in from the Beijing conference was more or less about the weather, how some groups didn’t get along and who was demonstrating about what. “And when it was over, everybody on one side cheered, while the others weren’t happy. Then they all went home.”

It takes media literacy to notice what’s missing. If it’s missing, how can you notice it? Once you become aware of the paucity of intersectional voices, you can’t unsee it. I’m so grateful my voice has been present as long as it has..

 

Ellen Snortland has written this column for decades and also teaches creative writing. She can be reached at: ellen@beautybitesbeast.com. Her award-winning film “Beauty Bites Beast” is available for download or streaming at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/beautybitesbeast