Why media portrayal of women matters | Brenda Murphy

Malta’s media landscape may remain a largely male-dominated affair, but a newly-launched NGO aims to make a difference. Prof BRENDA MURPHY explains

Brenda Murphy
Brenda Murphy

You have just launched an NGO, Mediating Women, specifically to address gender-related issues in the media. How much of a role does female media representation play in our perceptions of women?

When there is a male-dominated industry – no matter what the industry is – its outlook on the world is going to be framed through a male lens. This is understandable, because we see the world through our own gendered space.

So when it comes to the media industry, and the output it produces: for instance, the decision-making process about what sort of programming gets scheduled; who’s speaking, and who’s not speaking; and what appears within the programming framework, and so on… then the same lens is going to be in place for those processes as well and what gets shown or not shown will come from the perspective of those making the decisions. When a newsroom is dominated by men, they are more likely to refer to or invite men from their own social circles, excluding potentially more qualified experts or more relevant case studies.

And we’re not talking about an industry that produces something inanimate like burgers, or cars, or some other gender-neutral commodity: the output, in this case, is media content, which has an impact on public perception. So the public is being informed, and framed, within the context of a ‘male space’ – and through a male-biased lens.

Let’s look at a recent example: when Chantelle Chetcuti was murdered, most news items referred to her as a ‘mother of two’… suggesting that the media tend to portray women only in terms of their perceived ‘role’ in society (in this case, motherhood). Do you see this as an issue?

It is a huge issue, yes. I am the national coordinator for the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), which has been analysing Maltese media content every five years since 1995. What we have seen in the past 25 years suggests that very little has actually changed over that time.

One of things we look at is the percentage of airtime/newspaper space devoted to female participation. In 2000, for instance, only 18% of the people who spoke, or were heard, in the local media were women. In 2015, this had risen to 24%... but it still means that 76% of the time, the people who appeared, spoke or were heard in the media were men. Between 2010 and 2015, these stats didn’t change; they remained exactly the same.

Meanwhile, when women do appear in that 24% of the time, they are more likely to be reported either as ‘victims’… or speaking only about ‘soft news’. This is especially true of reporting by female journalists, because of the way the industry is shaped: women tend to get sent to cover the ‘light’ issues, while the ‘hard news’ is entrusted mostly to men.

There are reasons for this: media industries are shaped around a traditional expectation of staff availability that sometimes extend to a ‘24/7 commitment’, so female journalists may appear to prefer to cover ‘soft topics’, because of their other responsibilities at home – such as the ‘second shift’ and caring responsibilities.

In different ways, the media industry forces women into certain spaces, as practitioners… and then, when it comes to the production side of news, the mostly-male driven industry is framing the world through that same patriarchal lens. So when we are faced with femicide – such as Chantelle Chetcuti’s murder – it is presented or styled using ‘victim-framing’ discourse.

But surely that’s inevitable, given that Chantelle Chetcuti was, in fact, a victim…

It isn’t inevitable. There are so many other ways this could be written about.

It’s always reported that ‘the victim was murdered’ as opposed to ‘the perpetrator murdered the victim’. So the perpetrator becomes almost invisible… as if he is not the main actor in the story. And this ‘subject-verb-object’ turnaround is a very typical marker of the way domestic violence gets reported. In fact you framed your question to me earlier using the same structure when you asked me about “when Chantelle Chetcuti was murdered” when we could have talked about “when Justin Borg [allegedly] murdered Chantelle Chetcuti”.

In 2018, we published guidelines for journalists reporting domestic violence for the Commission of Domestic Violence, and I have seen some positive changes in reporting styles in relation to this case. This may be because more female reporters are covering these stories; or maybe it’s because journalists are thinking more about how they’re reporting… but there has been more of an effort to look at the wider picture – for example, focusing on and raising awareness around DV and its impact on the children in the relationship, and an effort to frame the perpetrator in a more visible way. But I am still seeing use of the passive voice when writing around the perpetrator.

So one of the main reasons we set up our NGO, ‘Mediating Women’, is to support people in the media industry and remind them that there are other ways of doing things. But it’s not a ‘shaming’ scenario; we’re not out to demonise the media as ‘the baddies’. What we’re saying to the media industry, in general, is: ‘if you are struggling with the template you have always used in the past, let us help’. Let’s work together to change things.

Our aim is not just to raise awareness, but also to provide as much support as possible to media practitioners: including training. In fact, later this year we’ll be working on a UNESCO training project, which will be running a 2-3 day workshop to ‘do curriculum development’ and help the participants produce ‘Media and Gender’ courses.

Given that so much of our outlook is framed, consciously or subconsciously, by the media… do you see any form of correlation between the media’s portrayal of women, and domestic violence?

No, I don’t think there is any correlation with ‘just’ the media. And I stress the word ‘just’, because… domestic violence is the result of gender inequality; and gender inequality does not exist only in the media. It’s everywhere.

As I repeatedly remind my students, the media is one of the main pillars that holds up ideology… along with family, education, politics/law, and religion. And for me, patriarchy is one of the most successful ideologies that have ever prevailed. We have experienced all sorts of ideologies – based on capitalism, communism, or different religions – but the one global ideology that has been successfully sustained, across time and space, is patriarchy.

And those five pillars hold up the patriarchy, in every space. The media is one of those pillars and it also plays its part, in the global landscape of inequality.

In the not-so-distant past, discussion programmes often tended to be all-male affairs… though this seems to have changed of late. Do you still see a gender gap in Maltese public discussion?

It has changed… a bit. But we know from the GMMP reports that there still isn’t enough female representation on discussion programmes… and I’m not just talking about Malta here. There is, in fact, ongoing activism about this on social media platforms: one example is the Twitter hashtag ‘#manel’, to refer to a discussion panel that is made up primarily of men.

If you watch a TV programme where, yet again, another ‘manel’ is discussing a particular issue… any issue, really; including women’s issues such as reproductive rights, legislation on women’s bodies etc… then you can flag it using the hashtag. This is happening in in the UK, Ireland, the USA and a lot of other countries and Mediating Women plans a similar hashtag campaign here in Malta. So yes, ‘manels’ are still a very-much recognised phenomenon, in the global and local media. (So if you are watching a programme and there is a predominantly male panel – screenshot it and send it to us on our Facebook page.)

I am aware that practitioners do try to find women to come on board; but it can be tricky, when there are tight deadlines, and when you’re up against a quick turnaround, as a practitioner… and sometimes, women are reluctant to come forward…

Could this be the result of negative public perceptions of women in the public sphere? For example, women politicians tend to be criticised harsher than men...

Yes, that is definitely a factor. And again, the media also plays its part. Take, for instance, the last three major elections in the UK and Ireland. Female candidates from all those all talked about how were they were often framed by the media... based on how they look; who they’re married to; how many children they have; what they were wearing on the day... but often with less attention given to their policies.

On the flipside, when they do put their voices out there – whether on Twitter, on any other social media platform – the hate-speech they get thrown back at them, as well as the trolling and the verbal violence, is exponentially greater than the kind of responses male politicians get. And there is a lot of research to prove it: women in politics are far more likely to be the subject of aggravated hate speech, including threats of murder and rape, than men.

This is happening in Malta, too: as attested by an escalation in death threats targeting female politicians during the MEP election campaign, as well as by the ongoing inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. How do you account for this apparent spike in misogyny?

Unfortunately, it is a global phenomenon and not so much a spike – it is just more visible now, thanks to social media. Look at the American political system at the moment. The manner in which female politicians are being trolled, harassed and threatened is vile: and the attacks are often centred on their bodies, and on their sexual safety.

Why is this happening? Because of a persistent attitude that women are somehow less ‘real’, less important and should be quiet ‘good girls’ who fulfil their duties as wives and mothers or other supportive roles. It also happens because when women speak out, or take up a significant position, their interests and perspectives often contradict what men want, and what a male-dominated society wants them to be.

Hate speech becomes ‘everyday’ and there is no effective legislation against it. But it’s not a problem that can be addressed just through legislation; we also need to be teaching our boys and girls, from a very young age, that ‘misogyny is not OK’, that women are ‘real’ people, and that there is another side to the human experience that is as valid and important as the male one.

Education is key – and the media plays a crucial role here. It is imperative that increased visibility of women, with a stronger voice in non-stereotypical scenarios becomes the norm.

Much of this rests in how men come to terms with their relationships with women, as women find their strength and place in the world; that way we can start co-creating a society that works for both. Because right now it doesn’t work. Women make up half the world, and have given birth to all of it. We are entitled to a place at the table.