Women in media: The power and the struggle

An analysis of the composition of Indian newsrooms reminds one of the same old barriers and throws up just slight improvement on gender issues.

ByJulia Thomas
Women in media: The power and the struggle
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Each year, the Network of Women in Media (NWMI), India, holds a national meet for its members, who hail from a range of platforms in states across India. On January 4-6, Chennai’s Anna University hosted over 100 female journalists – early-career reporters, long-time veterans of print newsrooms, old friends, new faces – for three days of discussions on “gender and media”.

Attendees were not limited to representatives of print publications, and they were by no means primarily from major newsrooms. One speaker, referring to the many challenges of a career in journalism, said journalism is becoming “a marginalised profession.”

The discussion that followed on reporting from the margins became a centrepiece for the conversations and issues raised in the conference – of how to support female journalists in their work, pay, representation, and treatment by colleagues.

The concentration of so many women journalists in one place is inspiring, a show of solidarity in and of itself, but it is also a reminder of the existing issues at hand.

As journalism evolves into a hybrid digital-print animal, adding information-presentation tools, and migrating to more open and inclusive platforms, acknowledgement of the same barriers – gender being one among many, including caste – needs to be key in equalising the balance of voices shaping content.

Three years ago, from September through December of 2014, we reviewed the pages of four major print newspapers and looked at the breakdown of articles written by women and men. We read through bylines and articles, analysing the presence of women’s issues and voices in every section. This fall, over the same set of months, we decided to look back into the state of reportage by women in 2017.

Our investigation revealed a similar answer, three years later: limited space is given to female reporters in major print media. It is barely (just five per cent) higher than the figure in 2014.

We found that a slightly larger percentage of pieces were written by women. Thirty-two per cent of the 7,372 articles examined in the study were written by women, compared to 27 per cent in 2014. The numbers reveal an undeniable gap between male and female voices in print newspapers, while also underscoring the incremental rise in gender-balanced reportage.

Still, while female journalists are securing more jobs in the media and shaping print content than any time previously, they make up a minority of the larger institutions and decision-makers of major English language print publications.

For this study, the papers examined were the Delhi editions of the top four English daily newspapers, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations – The Times of India, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, and The Telegraph, as well as The Indian Express.

(Though The Indian Express is not included among these ranks, we continued to include it in this study for its wide readership across circles of power and leading role as a print publication.)

This analysis addresses English language newspapers specifically, but there is a need for more attention to female inclusion across all levels and sections of publications. Only three of the top 20 newspapers in India in a June 2017 Audit Bureau of Circulations survey – The Times of India, The Hindu, and Hindustan Times – are English language.

Though print English dailies’ audience and breadth of reach is much smaller than that of vernacular languages, these platforms nonetheless reflect the tone of national discussions and the greater media landscape, as well as the power dynamics at play within Indian media.

The byline breakdown of the top English language media’s recently published work echoes the steadily increasing presence of women’s voices and critical discussion of gender issues in the print media, but consideration of equal representation should be taken further to include publications and languages outside of the mainstream.

On page one, things have changed for the better, as Hindustan Times leads with 49.5 per cent of its front-page articles written by women, followed by The Indian Express with 40.9 per cent. The Times of India rose from 28 per cent in 2014 to 31.2 per cent of articles by female contributors, while The Hindu’s representation decreased to 27 per cent from its former 40 per cent. The Telegraph ranked lowest, with a mere 16 per cent of cover pieces by women.

The metro and nation sections, which we analysed in a combined count for each newspaper, had a similar range of gender breakdown. Led by The Hindu, with 58.5 per cent, and bookended by The Telegraph with 15.4 per cent, these proportions were reversed completely with the editorial sections; 50.9 per cent of editorials by women in The Telegraph, and 16.3 per cent in The Hindu.

The business section had the most equality, with Hindustan Times’ leading at 58 per cent. Sports, on the other end, held the lowest proportion, with 9.1 per cent scored by The Hindu. So, women are not writing more about sports but, up from 2014, they do seem to make up a generally larger proportion of opinion and editorial sections.

The average of women-authored editorials in our previous study comes in at 24.5 per cent; this year, the fall 2017 average is 10 percentage points higher.

Editorial counts may be higher, but voices at the top may not be more diverse. In our conversations with female journalists currently or previously employed at print newspapers, many people noted that there are many female reporters on staff, but there are few in leadership roles.

All current editors-in-chief of the newspapers examined in this study are male, consistent with the majority in other head editorial positions. Malini Parthasarathy, who previously served as editor-in-chief and executive editor of The Hindu, told Newslaundry that she sees a sharp difference between the experiences of women as reporters versus women as editors. Parthasarathy began her career as a correspondent focused on politics in the 1980s and was able to do hard-core reporting from the start, but noticed less willingness to listen to feedback when she became an editor.

“Both male and female reporters generally have discomfort in accepting female authority figures as opposed to senior male authority figures. It is a subconscious reaction on the part of reporters and copy editors and ingrained habit rather than conscious prejudice,” said Parthasarathy, who found that though reporters were generally cooperative when discussing major stories and approaches to effectively present news, they resisted constructive criticism.

“I think the willingness to accept critical feedback from a senior male editor is more than from a female editor,” she said. “I do think that female authority figures are not yet a fact of life in Indian newsrooms.”

Coomi Kapoor, a political columnist and contributing editor at The Indian Express who has held the posts of chief reporter, special correspondent and editor, Delhi, over nearly four decades at the newspaper, says there is no longer any division or gender bias. She notes that there are more women working in top-level positions in television media.

“The glass ceiling has been broken more in television than in newspapers in terms of the very top jobs,” she told Newslaundry.

Scroll executive editor Supriya Sharma remembers that shortly after starting work as a correspondent in Chhattisgarh for TOI, 12 men were sitting in an editorial meeting in Delhi when she was invited inThis provoked a momentary realisation of gender dynamics in contrast to her experiences at NDTV, which she describes as an exceptional newsroom in terms of core female leadership.

“That’s when I realised, this is a completely different ball game: this is a newsroom where the only decision-makers are men,” Sharma said. “By that time I realised how rare it is to have a woman become an editor in India, you’ll be a books editor, a film editor. There are exceptions where people are political editors but overall, any edit meeting in India is going to be dominated by men.”

Women who occupy leadership positions set the standards for respect and treatment of reporters across the board. Those who do, “make things easier for other women”, according to Pallavi Pundir, formerly a reporter with The Indian Express.

A former features reporter at Hindustan Times said she noticed a significant shift when her female editor left and was replaced by a man, who on several occasions made inappropriate remarks about the relationship between female reporters and their interview subjects. When the female editor was around, she was very supportive and communicative with her team about assignments, especially when journalists went to the field independently.

The divide between female writers of traditionally so-named softer beats, such as arts, culture, health, and environment, and male journalists reporting on politics, crime, and security topics, has long been widely acknowledged – and “kind of speaks to the creative patriarchy of India,” according to the HT reporter.

Outside of major cities, the scale is tipped more in the other direction. Many reporters noted a contrast in both vernacular media newsrooms and in-field reporters – particularly correspondents based in rural areas.

In Bihar in 2005, Sharma reported for NDTV and remembers looking through a directory of approximately 400 journalists throughout the state. Four were women. Of the four, she was also the only one on the field while the others were based on the desk.

A correspondent for TOI in Uttar Pradesh said it took her about two years to get hired full-time as a reporter covering crime, since, as she sees it, the newspaper was hesitant to give the job to a woman.

As part of a year-long exploration of grassroots media, I spent time with Indian journalists in their newsrooms and on the field to get a feel of their approach to presenting people’s voices. This took me, mostly, to publications outside of the big newspapers, where I saw a mix of both male and female majority settings.

What I noticed was that the grassroots media tended to focus more intently on centring stories about gender or women, even if men were the primary content creators.

Khabar Lahariya’s office environment reflected the all-women representation of the Uttar Pradesh-based publication, with its near entirely female-staffed headquarters in Delhi, who transform footage and scripts sent in by correspondents.

In contrast, the radio station Voice of Tibet in Dharamshala, the site of the Tibetan government in exile, was headed by a female editor but staffed mostly with male reporters; a Mewat community radio station’s staff was majority men and one woman, though they were focused intently on getting more women into the recording studio and involved as regular volunteers.

The issue was one of larger cultural and societal context. Women’s families are often not encouraging of their participation or household expectations prevented them from working. Still, at open listening sessions, women made up most of the audience and shared their enthusiasm for the radio’s programmes – one recent, long-term investigative one which focused on sexual harassment in the community.

After the second episode went live, around 15 calls came to the station in response – all of them were from men. This is just one example of the gender-focused programming of the station, but it underscores attention to taboos or untouched topics that the mainstream might never be able to reach in a place like Mewat, where it can be difficult to initiate conversations around topics stigmatised such as sexual harassment.

And then there’s coverage of gender itself in mainstream media. Conversations in the mainstream press explicitly related to gender began to change, according to Sharma, in 2012 after the Delhi gangrape case. Now, such cases frequent front pages and often appear in the form of larger discussions – but still can come about as episodic rather than deeply and thoroughly reported upon.

Huffington Post analysis in 2016 found that the English language media generally reported on gender and women’s issues on a case-by-case basis, and through a lens of victim-centred blaming rather than more thorough, balanced analysis of all parties involved.

Take the widely circulated debate and front-page attention given to Padmavati, and the hate spewed at lead actress Deepika Padukone – in contrast, the list of names of individuals allegedly involved in sexual harassment cases across Indian universities circulated via social media in October received little to no attention in the mainstream media. Newspapers are there for the outbreak of certain issues linked to gender – but is coverage leaning to more difficult topics as it should?

“It was a crowdsourced list. The allegations had been made anonymously, without any evidence. But at Scroll we considered it serious enough to follow up, to see what could be verified. The other news outlet that pursued the story was Newsminute, where the editor is a woman. Perhaps this is no coincidence,” Sharma said. “A male editor could think this is the biggest story to do, but I still think that if you have more women then maybe, there would have been a stronger response.”

You can hear more about “Women Editors: Always The Bridesmaid” at The Media Rumble. For the second time, Newslaundry & Teamwork Arts come together to bring you the best of the news media industry. 

Register at themediarumble.com.

Date: August 3 & August 4 

Venue: India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.

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