The case for mainstreaming gender in tabloids is premised on the understanding that gender is at the centre of media’s role in shaping ideas and perceptions of the citizenry.
The Gender and Media research on tabloids conducted by Gender Links in South Africa, Mauritius and Tanzania has found that women constitute 25 percent of news sources. This is higher than the Southern African regional average of 19 percent in mainstream media, as shown in the 2005 Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP). However, it debunks some editors’ claim that media give women and men an equal space.
A further analysis of what the 25 percent talk about, reveals that women mostly comment on health issues, gender violence and celebrity news, while men talk about economics, politics, sport and education the most.
The monitoring covered 1,203 news items in South Africa, 859 in Mauritius, and 484 in Tanzania. Papers analysed were South Africa’s Daily Sun, The Daily Voice and Sunday World, Mauritius’s L’Hebdo, 5 Plus and Le Dimanche and Tanzania’s Alasiri, Amani and Uwazi.
Sixty-four percent (1,629) of the 2,546 news items monitored show a gender bias of some kind. Only a third of the stories were gender aware*.
Most of these biases manifest themselves in the way tabloids source comments and the stereotypical ways in which women and men are portrayed – for example, men and women appear in traditional roles such as women as homemakers and men as sports heroes.
Like in other mediums, men continue to dominate as sources in tabloids. In all three countries surveyed, men are still the voices of authority. The women used as sources mostly tell their personal experiences while men are spokespeople and experts. Interestingly, an audience study revealed
that readers are aware that women rarely appear as experts but mostly as “ordinary” people (who are not the majority of sources in any case). Women constitute, for example, 30 percent of news sources in the tabloids monitored in South Africa. This figure for tabloids is slightly higher than the South African figure for mainstream media (26 percent) as measured in the 2005 GMMP.
Women are, however, more likely to appear as images in tabloids (they constitute 35 percent of images) than as news sources.
Overtly sexist images appear on page three of most tabloids. These page-three images mostly show naked women. One of the roles that women are often portrayed in is that of sex worker.
Audiences interviewed during the study (120 people in South Africa, 84 in Tanzania and 36 in Mauritius) expressed the desire to see women portrayed in a diversity of roles, including as politicians and professionals.
Women make up 5 percent of politicians quoted in tabloids. This is slightly lower than the 8 percent for mainstream media. This, despite the fact that women now constitute about 20 percent of all politicians in Southern Africa.
Where women are not portrayed in sexual terms in tabloids, they predominate as witches and symbols of evil.
Other findings of the study include that audiences are aware that tabloids sometimes tend to exaggerate, do not always tell the truth, and present women in stereotypical terms.
Despite some editors’ assertions that they do not perpetuate stereotypes of any kind, tabloid content shows that they still need to strike a balance between commercial imperatives and responsibility towards citizens through sensitive coverage.
* “Gender awareness” is determined by factors including: a gender balance of sources, the use of gender-neutral language, and fairness in the approach to the issue.
Sikhonzile Ndlovu is a Gender Links researcher and media literacy coordinator.
- This article first appeared in The Media magazine (October 2008).