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News of Women is Usually Ghettoized
About Victims, or the Success Story
By Noelle Boughton
"Did the women's movement die?" someone asked me a while ago. "I haven't heard much about it lately." Familiar with some of the movement's inner workings, I reassured her it was alive. But it hadn't been long since I'd wondered the same thing.
In Winnipeg, I'd seen little news coverage of women's issues or groups. The fight over opening an abortion clinic, a YWCA dinner honouring local women and a march to protest assaults on women. That kind of story. And there were features on midwifery, poor elderly women, day care and teens thinking the women's movement had passed. But the items were brief, sporadic and usually poorly placed in the news package. They represented only the tip of women's issues and women-related events which could be covered.
Since moving to Toronto, I've seen more coverage of women's issues and interests - by the Toronto Star's Lifestyle staff and columnists, and by the Globe and Mail's women's issues beat reporter. CBC's Morningside has aired a wealth of items - interviews, panels, debates - on such topics as child care and men's role in the home. But executive producer Gloria Bishop notes these have been in response to listener requests and breaking news stories. Judging from the multiplicity of women's groups just in Toronto, and their literature, I'd say there's much more of concern to women yet to be presented to the public.
The relative lack of women's coverage was unintentionally illuminated last winter when the Realistic, Equal, Active for Life (R.E.A.L.) Women of Canada organization unsuccessfully applied to the Secretary of State for funds. The coverage focused on a debate between R.E.A.L. Women and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) rather than who R.E.A.L. Women are, what they stand for and their application. NAC and R.E.A.L. women's representatives regularly were featured in "right- wing" versus "left-wing" or "traditional family'' versus "radical feminists" debates.
Those who knew there was more to this were left frustrated, as were R.E.A.L. Women and NAC. Chaviva Hosek, past president of the 15-year-old NAC - an umbrella organization for 450 groups across Canada - noted: "Most of REAL women's claims were taken at face value. (Journalists) didn't ask questions about membership, where their money came from, their decision-making structure... there were no questions about what they say they believe and what is in their literature. They've asked us (NAC) all those and I think it's good to ask those questions."
Susan Rodgerson, R.E.A.L. Women's public relations officer, also expressed frustration. "I think the media emphasized the negative," she says. "They played up the fight between NAC and R.E.A.L. Women because we don't agree with NAC and its king of the castle. We pulled out of scheduled interviews because we didn't want to give them more fodder."
Some media tried to get beneath the surface. Morningside aired an interview with NAC president Louise Dulude. The Toronto Star's lifestyle columnists engaged in discussion; the Globe and Mail ran news stories, editorials and op-ed pieces. But through it all I was left wondering what was really happening: during the debate and in the general portrayal of women's groups and issues. They are behind, in my opinion, the major revolution of our time. But the media have not successfully reflected this. There seem to be several problems. One is the media's focus on conflict. NAC, for instance, deals with a gamut of issues from native women's rights to homemakers' pensions to work leave for both parents after a birth. But Hosek says the focus on conflict "leaves us with very little room to say some of the things we can."
Focusing on conflict can also distort reality, says Deborah Marshall, the national staff person for women's issues for the United Church of Canada. Women hold a variety of views on an issue such as inclusive language in the church. They work in a variety of groups. They are of differing ideologies. Their views represent a spectrum and yet they work together in areas such as violence against women. "I see the diversity, but I don't experience the polarization you read about in the media," says Marshall. "By playing two extremes, the media sometimes end up polarizing them."
The media also choose only a few spokespeople. "They suffer from an attitude of 'take me to the leader'," says Hosak of NAC, who has been one of those "leaders." While president, she gave reporters names of others across Canada to contact, but they seldom did - particularly if the reporters were in Toronto. This annoys those who don't get a chance to speak for themselves. "The media are ignoring the working class women," says Kerry McCuaig, vice-president of the 10-year-old Organized Working Women, a group of union members. McCuaig notes this phenomenon of the media assuming one person or group can speak for all is happening again with the Equal Pay Coalition, which the media have assumed speaks for female labour. While McCuaig's group supports the Coalition, she says many union women don't want equal pay legislation that supersedes their union contracts. The public isn't hearing about this.
The media are also guilty of stereotyping. Connie Eide, president of the Junior League of Toronto, notes her 700-member group "is always portrayed as homemakers. But over 50 per cent of our members are working women." The homemaker image was true 20 years ago, but the media have not discovered it has changed. Journalist Liss Jeffrey says this is true of media substance as well as image. She studied the feminist content of Toronto papers, magazines and television for a week last fall for the University of Toronto's McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology. She says: "News about women is usually about the victim, or as the success story. There doesn't seem to be a lot in between."
The media often oversimplify. "There's the idea that there's something called a women's movement," says Hosek of the NAC, "and there's very little idea of the diversity of people in the women's movement." Even print stories are presented in the simplest form. She cites one story about women falsely claiming their children are abused so they can get custody. Anecdotes rather than statistics were used and, she says, "an anecdote can create the illusion of this being widespread, whereas statistics would not."
Rodgerson of R.E.A.L. Women adds that in the debate over her group's funding application R.E.A.L. Women - which claims 35,000 members - was not fully portrayed. Its opposition to both sex education in schools and affirmative action were ignored, as was its belief in "God, family and country", its belief in the family unit being more important than any individual, and its policies favouring financial recognition for home care of elderly family members and tax-deductible, subsidized marriage counselling as opposed to easy divorce for troubled marriages.
Another problem is the media's need to base their output on timeliness or "news pegs". "As far as the media are concerned, we don't exist unless the government suddenly decides our issues are a priority for them," says Salome Loucas, co-ordinator of Women Working with Immigrant Women, a 13-year-old coalition of 50 community groups in Toronto providing immigrant programs and services. "Then we see something in the press; otherwise we don't see anything."
Most issues and reports which pertain to women's lives end up in the lifestyle rather than news sections of most papers or programs. Hosek says this ghettoizes women's issues in a less important part of the paper. She suggests that lifestyle sections attract fewer readers than the other sections of papers and says lifestyle stories "don't get the same kind of analysis" as do news stories.
While all that leaves many women and their representatives frustrated, some media people also find it unacceptable. "Women's issues don't get covered in the media the same way the Canadian Manufacturers' Association or most mainstream male events get covered," says Toronto Star columnist Doris Anderson. A former Chatelaine editor and head of both NAC and the Canadian Advisory Council on Women, she cites numerous instances where important women's conferences or issues have been ignored or given poor back page coverage.
One example was the two-day symposium on the family sponsored in March by the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Only a speech to the gathering by the Prime Minister made the front pages. A significant story based on an address by Margrit Eichler of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education was relegated to the Toronto Star's lifestyle section under the head "Surrogate mothers threat to equality."
"The problem," Anderson says, "is the press is still run by mainly middle age or older men. And many of them are uncomfortable with the women's movement.They don't understand it so they latch onto simplistic views."
London Free Press managing editor John Vormittag agrees. "We tell readers what's happening in the schools and what's happening to their environment or in court. Why don't we tell them what's happening at the closest level of their relationships? After all, news is all about trying to understand what's going on and to me the women's movement is the biggest thing today."
Others feel the media cover women's issues well. CBC National televison reporter Vicki Russell says they have been well represented in, for instance, the ongoing abortion debate, midwifery, women's role in the armed forces and equality challenges to Canadian laws. The National's legal affairs reporter for five years, her one complaint is her medium's constraints. Requirements for news pegs, visuals, and items two minutes or shorter make in-depth coverage difficult.
Bob Beaton, news director of the 14 reporters and editors at Winnipeg's CJOB and CKIS-FM radio, adds: "I think women's interest news gets the coverage it deserves. We cover it event by event and we have to make judgements based on journalism and finances. We have to look at the news value and whether it's worth putting someone on it. It might not be of enough interest."
Some media which are not satisfed and have changed their coverage, however, are The Globe and Mail and London Free Press. For two years each has had a full-time reporter on a women's issues beat.
The Globe and Mail's Ann Rauhala says the move was sparked by a small group of women reporters appealing to management. At the Free Press, managing editor Vormittag initiated the beat after his marital separation to get a better understanding of social changes affecting men and women. " I think a hell of a lot of us of both genders were looking for information on what was happening," he says. While he met some resistance from "his heavily male-dominated" news room, he found the beat a good source of stories and made it as permanent as any beat.
The reporters on the beat often find their stories on the front page. "I can never seem to scratch the surface. There's an incredible amount of women's news out there," says Free Press reporter Helen Connell, on the beat two years. She has covered many women's conferences as well as issues as father's rights, farm women's concerns and free trade's effect on women.
She and Rauhala receive a good number of reader's tips and leaked documents. They also create stories because they have a focus that would not otherwise exist on the paper. Connell, for instance, spotted as probably erroneous a story carried by many papers. It stated that a commission studying the Criminal Code recommended women should not face charges for murder. Connell had a copy of the report couriered to her. Connell learned the commission was referring to women's response to wife battering and defences for only battered women who kill their spouses. Rauhala reported on the anger of some Toronto women when they discovered the police failed to warn them a rapist was scaling apartment balconies in their area. While The Globe would have reported the rapes, publishing stories on women's anger, Rauhala says, resulted in a police review of its communications practices in sexual assualt cases.
Women's beats "move women's concerns and issues into the news pages with more consistency" and having them next to reports from the other beats "tends to legitimize women's concerns," says Rauhala. The beats have also broadened the definition of news. "In the past what was of interest to women wasn't really considered news," says Connell. "Now it's on the front pages."
Many women's groups and media people consider this new beat area good. " The Globe hardly covered any women's issues for many years. I think it's an improvement," says Doris Anderson. But McCuaig of Organized Working Women questions whether it ghettoizes women more by making them a special coverage area. London Free Press managing editor Vormittag disagrees. "Is the police beat ghettoization? Is the education beat?" Reporter Connell adds: "This is a recognition that the views of 52 per cent of the population have not been covered."
It's hard to say if other papers and stations will follow suit. Ken Foran, managing editor of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald and Mail Star, says: "Maybe there's some merit to it," but he's not racing to get into it. Gloria Bishop is satisfied with Morningside's present coverage and Stu Fawcett, news director of Winnipeg's CKY-TV which spot-covers women's concerns, says: "I think we are doing a pretty good job on it. There are other areas, like covering native people, in which we're doing worse which I would concentrate on more."
Jeffrey, who did the study for the McLuhan Centre, says: "To
see any massive change, we need more women in management defining
the parameters." Meanwhile, Rauhala notes, reporters can point
out stories which interest them but not their editors. Toronto
Star columnist Lois Sweet suggests reporters push to cover an
area and if denied show editors when it is covered elsewhere. News
consumers should call their news outlets and make their views known.
"It depends on how strenuously you make your views known,"
says Sweet."If you don't make your opinion known, you don't
Noelle Boughton is a freelance writer who lives in Toronto.
Her recent book, Margaret
Laurence: A Gift of Grace, is available from
the Women's Press imprint of Canadian Scholars' Press, Inc., at
www.cspi.org, or by calling toll-free to 1-866-870-2774.