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Since the 1960s, the women’s movement has been engaged in a systematic and constant critique of media institutions and their output. In a world in which the media increasingly provide the “common ground” of information, symbols, and ideas for most social groups, women’s representation in the media helps to keep them in a place of relative powerlessness. The term “symbolic annihilation,” coined by George Gerbner in 1972, became a powerful and widely used metaphor to describe the ways in which media images render women invisible. This mediated invisibility is achieved not simply through the non-representation of women’s points of view or perspectives on the world. When women are “visible” in media content, the manner of their representation reflects the biases and assumptions of those who define the public—and therefore the media—agenda. More than 25 years after the international community began formally to recognise the scale of gender inequality in every aspect of life, and despite the adoption of many measures to redress gender imbalances, the power to define public and media agenda is still mainly a male privilege.

When women are “visible” in media content, the manner of their representation reflects the biases and assumptions of those who define the public—and therefore the media—agenda.

The functions of writing, reporting, reviewing, analysing, investigating, and questioning human rights issues in general and gender issues, in particular, involve a constant and fragile tightrope walk between objectivity and creativity for a journalist, especially a woman journalist who is always accused of working out of a strong bias for women and against men. However, if one looked a bit closer, one would discover that trying to look at a given incident or event or personality from different perspectives itself is a creative process where the dilemma between objectivity and creativity would cease to exist. The personal bias of the journalist, barring a factual report, is bound to infiltrate into the “objective” value of the news. This need not necessarily interfere with objectivity unless there is a bias against the other party if there is one.

But the bigger questions are: (a) Do the media need to be rigid about the “objectivity” clause while reporting or writing on human rights issues?; and (b) Does the rigid principle of objectivity violate the three-fold aims of (i) attracting the attention of the lay reader towards human rights violations; (ii) raising the consciousness of the reader about human rights violations; and (iii) inviting the participation of the readers, directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly, in building up collective resistance against human rights violations? The aim of the human rights journalist begins with education and information and then proceeds from the known to the unknown, reaching out to include readers within the ambit of participation of the masses in human rights consciousness-raising. “After all, the ultimate goal of all research is not objectivity, but the truth,” wrote Helene Deutsch (1884–1982), a US psychiatrist in her preface to The Psychology of Women (1944–1945.)

One unique characteristic about gender-centric violence that unfolded during an Indian media monitoring study on reportage on women and crime in 2004 revealed a visible rise in the reporting of crimes committed by women, mainly where men are reportedly victims. This, however, does not mean that this rise in women committing acts of violence individually, or in groups, has in any way lessened the number and degree of violence against women. Such crimes ranged from baby-lifting by Sangita Prasad in Siliguri through the Nagpur incident that saw a rape victim lead a mob against rapists to a woman throwing acid on a man, causing him grievous injuries “after being fed up with the lessons in morality he was preaching to her every day.”

This observation of a slight but visible shift in the character of news against, rather than for, women raises several questions that need further exploration and analysis. Some of these questions are: Are women really becoming more aggressive in expressing their anger, protest, violence, etc? Or are crimes committed by women fetching more news value and news coverage than they did before? Is this a reflection of legal and judicial machinery that fails to mete out justice to women when they are victims of violence? Or is this a natural outburst stemming from decades of having been suppressed and conditioned to accept violence for granted? Is this kind of news being published for its sensational value? Or is this a true indicator of a shift in the gender-linked theory of violence where men are mainly the perpetrators?

Though most of the newspaper stories were based on factual reporting of crimes committed by women, some of the headlines were very derogatory not towards the criminal or the crime but because the perpetrators were women.

Though most of the newspaper stories were based on factual reporting of crimes committed by women, some of the headlines were very derogatory not towards the criminal or the crime but because the perpetrators were women. Some of the textual matter within the report or letter to the editor tended to trivialise, while for men the writing and the language were different. Trivialisation of any crime, never mind the sex of the perpetrator, is unethical and biased because crime knows no gender where the perpetrator is concerned.

Some time ago, prompted by the desire to promote the positive role the mass media can play in relation to gender and development concerns, and to share experiences with the two neighbouring countries of Laos and Cambodia, the Research Centre for Gender, Family and Environment in Development (CGFED) and Vietnamese Info Youth Centre organised a workshop on gender, media, and development in Vietnam.
The workshop analysed the role of the mass media in propagating gender equality and explored models and experiences that promote the active participation of communities in their own development. At the end of the workshop, recommendations were made on how to move forward in the struggle to ensure that the mass media become a tool for women’s empowerment in Asia. These recommendations included:

  • More attention must be paid to basic education programmes for women, especially women in rural and mountainous areas.
  • Besides improving cultural knowledge, knowledge and information on healthcare for women, particularly reproductive and sexual healthcare, must not be ignored.
  • All countries, particularly the three Indochinese countries, should make a commitment to gender sensitivity and gender policies.
  • The negative effects of globalisation that impede women’s development, such as poverty, drug addiction, prostitution, and the trafficking of women and children, should be stopped.
  • A relationship between the mass media of the three countries—Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam—needs to be developed.
  • Short-term training classes for gender cadres should be organised so that they can collaborate effectively and directly with the mass media on covering gender issues.

While it is true that things have changed in a big way for women in the last 40 years, with women becoming aggressively and increasingly vocal about progress and equality for women and girls, much more needs to be done. The 21st century is throwing up new challenges that are constantly focussing on the importance of being a girl or woman today, and old problems still need our attention and energy. These include good health, genuine self-esteem, understanding of and comfort with sexuality, relationships based on mutual respect and equality, safety from domestic and sexual violence, goal-setting and career success, sound financial judgement, educated participation in government and democracy, and overall powersharing in society for women and girls. We have a long way to go so far as media literacy and education for girls and women are concerned.

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Dr Shoma A Chatterji
Dr Shoma A Chatterji
Dr.Shoma A.Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has won two national awards for best writing on cinema -Best Film Critic in 1991 and Best Book on Cinema in 2002. She won the Bengal Film Journalists Association's Best Critic Award in 1998, the Bharat Nirman Award for excellence in journalism in 2004, a research fellowship from the National Film Archive of India in 2005-2006 and a Senior Research Fellowship from the PSBT Delhi in 2006-2007. She has authored 22 books on cinema and gender and has been a member of jury at several film festivals in India and abroad.
She holds a master's degree in Economics and in Education; PhD in History (Indian Cinema) and a Senior Research Post-doctoral Fellowship from the ICSSR. In 2009-2010, she won a Special Award for 'consistent writing on women's issues' at the UNFPA-Laadli Media Awards (Eastern region), was bestowed with the Kalyan Kumar Mitra Award for 'excellence in film scholarship and contribution as a film critic' in 2010 and the Lifetime Achievement SAMMAN by the Rotary Club of Calcutta-Metro City in 2012.

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