Human rights and gender-sensitive reporting

Media play a crucial role in influencing how people think and what we consider normal and acceptable. Through the decisions they make, media can either deepen women’s oppression and gender inequality or work to counteract these imbalances.

Gender inequality within media organizations means that:

  • Women seldom rise to decision-making positions;
  • In most places women journalists are in the minority
  • Women journalists are most frequently assigned to cover “soft” news, or news that does not deal with “serious” topics (with the exception of sport!) while men cover “hard” news, the major events of the day, like politics, conflict, finance and crime.

Sexual harassment of women in the newsroom is also widespread.

CEDAW and gender

CEDAW requires that states parties take measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women (CEDAW, Article 5).

Tackling the problems

Male bias

Most stories in the media are about men and quote men. The best way to ensure that women’s voices are also heard in the news is to talk with women about the issues that matter to them. Media that carry women’s voices and perspectives are more balanced and richer.

Another way of countering male bias is to look for the women’s perspective in stories, i.e. to “mainstream gender perspective.”

Lack of knowledge

Journalists, both men and women, often lack knowledge of the issues affecting women, or of how issues affect women in different ways. This can be remedied by education on gender issues and mainstreaming the gender perspective.

The invisible woman

The media ignore certain categories of women, creating the impression that they are unimportant or worthless. Examples include elderly women, working class women, women from certain minority ethnic groups and poor women.

Gender stereotypes

One of the most frequent criticisms of media coverage is that it portrays women in terms of gender stereotypes: simplistic generalizations attributed to all women or all men without regard for accuracy or truth.

Common stereotypes of women portray them as:

  • mothers
  • homemakers
  • weak
  • subservient
  • victims
  • intellectually inferior to men
  • pure virgins (for girls and young women)

If a woman behaves in a way that does not fit the stereotype, she is represented as extreme. For example, a woman doctor or a woman who leads an organization that looks after street children is likely to be portrayed as an “angel” or a “saint” rather than as a professional person. A woman who challenges a man is represented as unnatural. An unmarried woman who is sexually active is portrayed as a sinner.

When media reproduce these stereotypes they are shaping public opinion in ways that reinforce them and deepen inequality, stigma and prejudice. Gender stereotypes prevent us from seeing women as they really are.

By challenging gender stereotypes, media are fulfilling their obligations under international human rights law. Media that challenge gender stereotypes are also in a stronger position to challenge governments to fulfil their obligations with respect to gender.

Sex objects

Many studies have shown that the media most frequently represent women as sex objects for men to look at and fantasize about. In news, features, entertainment and advertising, images focus on women’s bodies, their clothing and their looks. The impression is that women have nothing else to offer society and that women must live up to unrealistic and undesirable standards.

Double standards

In the media, a teenage boy who has sexual relations is represented as a man. A teenage girl who has sexual relations is represented as promiscuous. A man who abandons his children is simply bad or irresponsible; a woman who abandons her children is portrayed as unnatural.

Covering sensitive issues

As mentioned, women suffer grave human rights violations that may include domestic violence, rape and other forms of sexual abuse. Media coverage is often not sensitive to these experiences or may portray women as being responsible for the crimes.