The thing about us women in the media

Newsrooms are beginning to shift their default patriarchal narratives and structures to include women, but there’s still a long way to go.

ByRevati Laul
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The thing about us women in the media
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In November 2013, I quit my job at Tehelka magazine over allegations of the editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal raping my colleague and friend. I thought it was the obvious and natural thing to do—or actually, I didn’t really think about it. As soon as I read the email complaint my friend said she had sent in about the incidents that took place in Goa, I was absolutely clear that I could not possibly work there anymore.

So it struck me as strange that this was something I would be applauded for. Is it unusual to not want to work for someone after he’s accused of raping your colleague? Then I put my journalist hat on, and started to count the signs I had missed. The everyday predatory behaviour that has been normalised by women journalists like me, and most of my other colleagues. From being stared at and thought of as fair game by politicians we’ve interviewed, to colleagues and bosses making rape jokes—a colleague at Tehelka made a rape joke a few weeks after the Nirbhaya rape, as we were waiting for an edit meeting to begin.

And in the last few years, the trolls online have amplified and magnified what were once stray remarks made in passing by people who read or saw your work. In this respect, the media space is no different from most other work spaces. The only weird bit about it is having to report on misogyny elsewhere, then come back to your own office and face similar misogyny as you file your story.

But in my 22-year media career that has been through several phases—from working in television to print to a combination of media spaces—I can see a distinct difference between life in the media before Nirbhaya and after. Before, I have reacted from a far more uncertain space when I was groped and abused by colleagues at work. Not anymore. Then, I wasn’t fully conversant with the rules of sexual violence at the workplace. I was stupid and ignorant, and content with whatever action my bosses took. When I wasn’t happy, I would just shut up about it.

It has become relatively easier to commune with others over a complaint of harassment. Or so it seems in my privileged media world. I am well aware of how this is a function of both class and economics. Things in small towns and villages are still impossible for women journalists, video-volunteers and technicians of various descriptions, because of how little bargaining power they have and how meagre their salaries are.

But there are new collectives that exist in many places, like the Network of Women in the Media, India (NWMI) that I joined two years ago.

We are a group of a few hundred women journalists from across the country who petition the government and police when we need to about colleagues in danger. We meet once a year in a different part of the country. We debate and discuss everything from the Raya Sarkar list to rates different organisations pay freelancers. It is a robust and dynamic group that started out small 14 years ago, and has seen a spike in its growth and influence more recently.

In newsrooms in Delhi, I have noticed how gender issues have moved from being a “feature story” to the centre of the news cycle. How mansplaining has become a thing that media houses are increasingly embarrassed by when caught in the act. Some newsrooms have at least begun to have conversations about women being represented in discussions and expert panels on areas that have been the preserve of men. Defence and tech are still holding out against women more often than not. Indo-Pak experts are almost always men—as are gadget and car stories. And, in some cases, budget day discussions and analyses. For instance, it took a while for newsrooms to object to a spike in the price of sanitary napkins after GST. But as I write this story, the scrapping of GST on sanitary napkins has been headline news across a spectrum of  TV channels.

There is however the inescapable fact that the media is a microcosm of our social matrix, and therefore does reflect the schizoid nature of all things gender. There are still lewd graphics around stories that feed vicariously off sexual content, and serve up thinly disguised porn as news. Women bosses are still vilified based on their gender even in the otherwise more progressive newsrooms. And freelance journalists often have to put up with conditions that are mostly unsafe for a woman to be in, because of the abysmally low pay per report filed. A man can stay in a 600 rupee a night place in Varanasi without thinking about becoming an easy target for sexual violence. A woman can’t do that, so she either has to forego the story or her safety.

Very few newsrooms—actually, just one: NDTV—has a creche attached to the Delhi office for working parents with infants to care for. The creche truly does enable both parents and—let’s not kid ourselves here—mostly women to work soon after delivering a baby, without the overwhelming guilt that often accompanies the work-over-baby or work-along-with-baby choice.

There are the many silences we still have to contend with in newsrooms in the way stories are classified, and how hierarchies are drawn up over hard and soft news (the terms also being gender-loaded, but I will ignore that for now). A story on the plight of women whose husbands have disappeared into the Kashmir conflict is often classified as soft. A story on the Rafael planes is hard. Reverse the situations, and I can wager that the classification will change. What if the women disappeared into the conflict, leaving any villages with only men to tend to children with no jobs and no pensions? Not so soft, I can bet on it! Replace Rafaels with inflated bills on sewing machines—for the same amount of money and lack of accountability. You get it.

This becomes very unfunny when the classification injects the story with an inherent sexism with dangerous consequences. I give you one word to explain what I mean—Arushi. For the longest time, we the media, and I include myself here, were guilty of picking up what may well be the fantasy of one male cop with a few jobs to protect. A girl was found murdered in her own bed. The male housekeeper was also found bludgeoned to death. The cops spun a story of how the two may have been caught sleeping with each other and an outraged father killed his daughter and the man for it. Sexism led to Arushi’s parents being put away, then released, then put away again. Crime stories are repeatedly guilty of the worst kind of predatory, unpalatable fictions that devolves from an inherently parochial male reporting culture.

It’s tempting to infer, as we scribes are perennially doing, that technology is the bastard of the piece. Those horrendous TV channels. The disgusting and violent trolls on Twitter. But we are a complex country with so many twisted and interwoven narratives. So Twitter also brings with it solidarity online. There are dalit women Whatsapp groups I have seen at work in rural Gujarat. There is Khabar Lahariya, and Dalit Camera. And funding possibilities from the International Womens’ Media Foundation. All made possible only in the era of the World Wide Web.

Things have most certainly come a long way from the time we were confined to the pages and stories from Women’s Era magazine. But if I was think about what women collectives I have been part of have dreamed, imagined and worked towards—it is to build more networks, more solidarity, more conversations on gender and crucially, more funding for women wanting to put their babies and families aside, and venture out after dark to places where no men have been before.  

You can hear a panel discussion on women editors and how newsrooms can be optimised for women and their successes 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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