Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–CNN, the self-styled "world news leader" needs to give women more of a leading role in interpreting world events.

I recently returned from a trip to Europe in which I watched CNN International almost daily. I appreciated its programming because CNN International does such a great job of covering major live events. But CNN International’s focus on men and their involvement in politics, sportsand business left me wondering why more womenweren’t asked to comment on any of those arenas.

That’s not to say that CNN International is diversity-averse in its staffing. Its anchor and reporter lineup is a mini-United Nations of journalists, many of them remarkable women.

Hong-Kong born Monita Rajpal, a news anchor and reporter, speaks English, Cantonese, French and Punjabi. International correspondent Sheila MacVicar has been based out of London for years. Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour has distinguished herself in many areas, but particularly with her Middle East war and diplomatic reporting. CNN veteran Octavia Nasr is senior editor of Arab affairs.

There are many more women like these, reflecting a philosophy from CNN’s founding years of valuing diversity in its news teams. CNN has even created programs showcasing women discussing urgent public affairs. These include "CNN and Co.," which ran from November 1992 until October 1999, and "On the Story," a Saturday morning current-events program hosted by its female anchors and correspondents.

Neither program, however, appeared on CNN International. And this is where CNN, which says it reaches a billion people worldwide, needs to give women–in the form of sources and experts–equal time.

Shared Area of Concern

Female activists share my concern about the omission of women’s views in public affairs news coverage and analysis.

Laura Zimmerman is cofounder and director of the Center for New Words in Cambridge, Mass., which is co-sponsoring this weekend’s Women and Media Conference in that city. (Disclosure: I and Women’s eNews editor in chief Rita Henley Jensen are featured speakers at the conference, as is Marie Wilson, quoted below.) Zimmerman says the dearth of women talking about public affairs on news programs results in audiences that "become habituated to male voices and bylines and dependent on white male gravitas to explain what’s happening in the world."

Marie Wilson is president of The White House Project, a nonpartisan organization working to enhance the public’s perception of women’s capacity to lead. "How does this country come to trust women to lead," she asks, if news managers "do not trust women to provide valuable information, insight and analysis?"

CNN responded to my concerns via e-mail. "CNN International is committed to presenting vastly diverse perspectives from around the world on the news stories that are covered each day" the e-mail said. "The analysts and contributors CNNI speaks to are invited to comment on our air because of their knowledge and experience. We do not exclude anyone because of her or his gender." 

As long as women are infrequently being turned to for international analysis at a time when the world is roiled by conflicts that directly threaten their well-being and their rights, women on the ground will have a difficult getting their political struggles recognized.

Arresting News Montage

During my trip, CNN International’s coverage offered an arresting visual montage, in which combat scenes in Iraq mix with huge demonstrations in Taiwan after a controversial presidential election and moving memorial service in Madrid for victims of that city’s train bombing.

Interpretation and commentary abounded from academics, think-tank researchers, political leaders and so forth. But the voices were rarely female.

From the tantalizing brief exposure that female commentators did get, I had a sense of how much was being left out. A video clip of a few seconds showed thousands of Palestinians marching to mourn the death of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin. There were veiled women shouting and brandishing automatic weapons. Who are these women? How representative? To what extent are Palestinian women directly combating Israeli troops? No answers and, I suppose, the assumption on programmers’ parts, of no keen interest among viewers.

The mother of a Palestinian teen-age boy who had been discovered at an Israeli checkpoint with his torso wrapped in bombs was interviewed, but no more than four or five of her sentences reached me. How does she explain a son winding up in this situation? What does she see as a way out of the conflict?

I caught a fine profile of an Israeli woman who keeps tabs on the way Israeli soldiers treat Palestinians at border checkpoints. But the coverage of her work and philosophy was all too brief. I wondered how many other Israeli women work with her. Does she represent a rising tide? How does she measure her effectiveness?

Some Female Punditry Allowed

CNN International didn’t ignore women entirely during the two weeks I was tuning in. Rachel Briggs, a risk and security expert at U.K. -based Demos, an independent think tank, offered illuminating insights into international security challenges. An "Inside Africa" segment on disputes over water rights on that continent featured a female expert explaining how the situation doubly penalizes women, because in addition to being consumers, women are also the farmers. Their well-informed perspectives didn’t leave me satisfied, however, only eager to hear more women explain their world on CNN International reports.

Journalists often tell me they can’t control the gender of the newsmakers. If the newsmakers are male–and that makes the coverage seem to be mostly about men–that’s just the way it is.

I buy this only up to a point. The foreign ministers and dignitaries at the Madrid memorial services were predominantly male. In the coverage of the 9/11 commission hearings, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, commission member Jamie Gorelick and the mothers and widows of the dead in the gallery showed the female side of the situation. Otherwise, it was a male parade. The combatants in Iraq, seen daily on CNN, are mostly men.

But even in television, video footage is only one piece of the story. Expert opinion and analysis is also crucial and this is where CNN International should invite more women to help interpret the conditions and policies that trigger the events CNN covers around the clock, around the world.

I contacted CNN International for its perspective on this matter. Its spokesperson acknowledged my query but did not provide a response before my deadline.

CNN International’s present approach reinforces to its largely male (76 percent) audience the notion that women have little to say about political turmoil and foreign, economic and social policy. But as the few women who manage to get on the air show, they have plenty to say. More just need to be asked.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., which in February 2004 received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.



For more information:

The Women’s Review of Books–
Where are the women? The strange case of the missing feminists. When was the last time you saw one on TV?:

CNN International Anchors/Reporters: