Who Makes the News?' is a global study of how much men and women appear in, and how they are portrayed by, the media. This year marks the fourth time that the Global Media Monitoring Project has carried out the study, and it is the first time that Denmark is participating. The study was previously conducted in 1995, 2000 and 2005. This latest study gender-tested news coverage on 10th November 2009. Around the world, on this randomly selected day, the representation of women in the global media was measured and analysed and conclusions were drawn.
An interim report of the study's provisional findings published in March 2010 shows that the percentage of women appearing as news subjects in the media has risen to 24% in 2010 from the 21% in 2005 and 17% back in 1995. Looking specifically at Europe, the picture remains largely unchanged. Here women make up 26% of the news subjects used in and by the media. Even though there is some cause for celebration regarding the headway achieved, these provisional results still show that the imbalance remains massive. Men significantly dominate the media, both as journalists and as news subjects. Nowhere is this gender imbalance more pronounced than in the area of providing expert knowledge – four out of five experts in the media are still men. On the other hand, women are almost as popular as men as subjects in the area of 'popular opinion'.
Another parameter of interest that plays a decisive role when it comes to the visibility of women in the media is the issue of age. The 2005 study showed that almost 50% of male news subjects in the media are over the age of 50 whereas women generally vanish from news programmes, and from the screen as a whole, when they get older. According to the 2005 study, three-quarters of the women news subjects in the media were under the age of 50.
The role of expert, gender and age are extremely closely interwoven elements when it comes to the representation of men and women in the media. These three parameters – role of expert, gender and age – are so dangerously interlinked that they give rise to a particularly heightened level of vigilance in relation to the issue of gender equality within the media.
When we see a male expert, decision-maker or politician on television (something we all do daily and in every programme), these men addressing us can be either young or old, handsome or plain, fat or thin, with a full head of hair or none at all. As a rule, their uniform consists of suit and shirt with optional tie. On rare occasions, a man is let into the studio with an ethnic background different from the standard, dominant white Danish male. Yet despite these variations, it strikes me as notable how men, in step with their age, administer their authority. Knowledgeable young men grow into knowledgeable old men. And it all seems so natural: it is this progression of life that we are all so used to, and we have grown up accepting it as the most natural thing in the world.
What does strike me is the fact that it will be years before we experience an equivalent perception of knowledgeable young women growing into knowledgeable old women who, with the security of being invited as an expert, speak authoritatively on TV – all because women generally become more and more underrepresented the older they get. On the rare occasion when knowledgeable older women do eventually appear on our screens being interviewed (and we can already forget thinking that an older female journalist will be conducting the interview, because that almost never is the case), then the whole uniqueness of the situation is in itself something that makes an impression. When a female expert of advancing years does appear on my screen, I find myself sitting uncomfortably in front of the set. My disquiet comes not only from the fact that in such a situation I am reminded of the appallingly low representation of women in the media, but also because I react to the fact that women born before, during and after World War II lack any sort of role model.
If she grew up in the 1950s, gained an education in the 1960s and went on to hold jobs and positions involving a high level of knowledge, authority and with influence over and consequences for others, she represents such a new expert role that each woman must individually create this role from scratch. It is for this reason that I sit on tenterhooks every time a female expert appears on screen. How has she chosen to administer her age? How does she combine her age and her gender with the authority that has provided her access to the studio? Is she on the same wavelength as the youth? Does she have a neutral, inoffensive and played-down fashion sense? Are her wrinkles visible? Hair dyed? Is her femininity on show, absent or completely covered up? Is she capable of being charismatic and approachable? And if she is and if she dares to be completely herself, is this a minus or does it, on the contrary, strengthen her credibility – in the same way that in a similar situation it often strengthens a man's clout if viewers see equivalent qualities when meeting his personality?
I find all this so very interesting because the combination of women and power in society is a somewhat new phenomenon, and because powerful women who hold expert positions are even rarer on television than in real life. As a whole generation, the front line of powerful women has no norm against which to lean. But the absence of women over the age of 50 in the media, combined with the general favouritism towards men as news subjects, merely serves to lengthen the epoch during which women experts are left having to invent the role from scratch every time. As a result, the prevailing tradition of men being the norm is similarly being extended.
My own reflections regarding the few, rare women experts whom I see on my screen is one thing – the responsibility of the media is quite another. According to classic journalistic self-understanding, it is the job of the media to reflect social debate and retain a critical view towards those in power without actively participating in the political fight about the direction and development of society. Added to the trinity of power in Denmark – parliament, government and judiciary – is often the press, and through its critical opposition, this 'fourth estate' takes on a role with a weighty and substantial democratic responsibility. And in light of this, I do not hesitate for one moment in demanding that the media adopts an equivalent responsibility for equality between women and men.
That the first significant post-war generation of well-educated career women has been left to navigate through life without role models is not, of course, the responsibility of the media. Nor is it the media's job to support female experts' gender-identity in such a way that age, professional competencies and authority support rather than undermine their credibility. And it is not the media's fault that young women, merely as a result of their age, are so attractive to look at that it is a joy to the eye to have them grace our screens.
However, it should be the media's responsibility to develop and implement a policy of gender equality that deals with the love affair that the visual media has with youthful faces and thin bodies. And the media should also adopt some responsibility regarding the treatment of male and female experts, in the same way that it is already a banal management responsibility to ensure the equal treatment of male and female employees. And without any shadow of a doubt, it is the media's responsibility to reflect the pivotal democratic change with women now heavily engaged – both professionally and politically – in the development of European society. In connection with this, it is the task of the media to criticise the structural power imbalance that impedes women's democratic participation, women's freedom of speech and women's influence – not just on their media workplace, but also on the stories being written, presented and told.
'Who Makes The News?' shows that female journalists, much more than their male counterparts, challenge stereotypical gender roles in their news stories. There is still an overwhelming majority of male journalists so a relatively simple recommendation, if wishing to readdress the media's off-balance gender perspective, is to employ more female journalists across the board. This simple move would in itself, if the study were to be believed, correct the terrible figures that for the fourth time in 15 years speak clearly for themselves.