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Buried in U.N. Stats: My Day as Media Monitor

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Women's Commission begins its big review session at the U.N. today and Aditi Bhaduri made a small, anonymous, contribution to one piece of research on the table about media coverage. But here's her more complete report.

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The Women's Commission begins its big review session at the U.N. today and Aditi Bhaduri made a small, anonymous, contribution to one piece of research on the table about media coverage. But here's her more complete report.
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Aditi Bhaduri (on the far right) monitoring Indian media.(WOMENSENEWS)--Is women's gender central to the news story?

Does the story clearly highlight issues concerning equality or inequality between women and men?

To what extent does the story challenge stereotypes about women and-or men?

Those three questions were what I used last year to analyze 10 news stories in an Indian English daily for the fourth Global Media Monitoring Day, the largest and longest study of gender in the world's news media.

And now I feel like a small part of something really big.

That's because "Beijing+15" will get underway today when the U.N. Commission on Women undertakes a 15-year review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration of 1995, a global international commitment to strengthen the rights of women everywhere.

It will be a giant meeting and I'll be an insignificant, invisible faraway speck many time zones away.

But my little coding marks, focused on 10 stories in one newspaper according to three criteria, will be buried somewhere deep inside the preliminary findings of the most recent monitoring report. The findings will be discussed at the review meeting, with an eye to spreading media-practice advice to representatives of member states and nongovernmental groups.

The monitoring project is organized by the World Association for Christian Communication, a Toronto-based group that promotes social fairness in communication and religious cooperation. It is conducting the project in partnership with United Nations Development Fund For Women.

A final media monitoring report will be ready in time for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Review Summit planned for September in New York, a progress check on global commitments made in 2000 to slash poverty, hunger and disease globally by 2015.

Phew. That's a lot of commitments to monitor and review.

But getting back to my small contribution to all of this, which occurred on Nov. 10, 2009. I joined volunteers in 120 countries who agreed to consume news on the same day and fill out forms about the coverage of women.

Ten Stories to Analyze

In India, the Network of Women in Media in India, a forum of female journalists, coordinated the exercise. My group monitored dailies in Kolkata and I wound up reading The Telegraph, an English-language paper.

I was only looking at news stories, not editorials, commentaries or letters to the editor.

That left me with 10 stories, a nice, neat number.

Here's what I found: Out of 10 stories, only one met any of the three criteria.

I know that sounds pretty bad, but it doesn't reflect my real response to the monitoring exercise, so please read on.

The dominant story of the day was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, was prominent in the picture inside the story. But there was no gender angle to the story, provided by The New York Times. Merkel was just Merkel, the country's chancellor.

The second page of the paper, which carried international news, did feature a woman. This was the only story that met any of the criteria because it highlighted inequalities between men and women. It was about Rihanna, the U.S. pop star, breaking her silence about suffering domestic violence. It was just a short snippet, again sourced from The New York Times, with a small photo.

Mother Teresa was also on the national news page, in a feature about a petition by some church leaders to the government of India to pre-empt efforts made by the Albanian government to shift Mother's body from Kolkata, where she lies buried, to Albania. The article was about the petition, so I don't feel Mother Teresa was central. But even if she was, her gender was not central to the story. It was a story about a great saint, not a woman.

None of the stories seemed to seriously challenge male and female stereotypes, at least not head on.

One Haunting Story

One particular story that I coded, however, has stayed in my mind. It was about a young man Manu Sharma, the scion of a powerful political family in India. A decade earlier, in a drunken state, he shot and killed a model named Jessica Lall, who was tending the bar where Sharma was drinking. Seeing his inebriated state, she had refused to serve him any more alcohol and in a fit of rage he shot her dead immediately. Sharma was tried in a court of law and then set free. In 2007 public outrage and activism by college students and Lall's sister forced the case to be retried. Sharma was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The story that ran in The Telegraph on monitoring day was about how Sharma lied about his mother being unwell, which allowed him to leave prison on parole, only to be found partying a day later at a Delhi disco. There was public outrage, not just at the fact that Sharma had lied to be out on parole, but that his parole had been approved by the Delhi government, which is headed by a woman, Chief Minister Sheila Dixit.

(In a strange coincidence, I was once in the same room as Dixit. She was a chief guest handing out the awards at a ceremony where I was one of a group of journalists to win an award for gender sensitive media reporting.)

The story featured Sharma and had a picture of him surrounded by police; it also had a small snapshot of the slain model. The model's picture was of a decked-out woman, which I felt reinforced stereotypes of a glam girl. The picture did not suggest that the model had died a tragic death.

Good and Bad News

Did this story treat inequities or stereotypes? I decided no, because it seemed that Sharma shot the bartender for refusing to serve him, not for being a woman.

So the bad news was that gender seemed submerged as a news element.

But the good news, which I couldn't find a way to express in the coding system, is that the coverage seemed gender-neutral. Angela Merkel and Sheila Dixit made news not as women, but as powerful political personalities. Women seemed to be in the mainstream and receiving mainstream news treatment. There was no way my coding could reflect that.

Still, I could see so much room for improvement and telling stories from more of a women's angle.

The day I monitored, for instance, the paper ran a big story about India's preparation for an armed onslaught on a Maoist insurgency that has been underway in about 200 of India's 600 or so districts. In any conflict, women and children are at high risk. But the story did not ask about special plans or codes of conduct to minimize the suffering of the women and children in the battle zone.

Since many of my reactions didn't find their way onto the coding sheet, that's my full account, in case anyone wants to add it to the tonnage of studies, presentations and statistics that go into the big review meeting in New York.

Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist based in Kolkata and New Delhi, India.

For more information:

World Association for Christian Communication

Women's Media Center