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Beyond the logic of hard news

Readers miss out on important stories when journalists compete to make the front page. Research by media sociologist Ida Schultz indicates a news logic favouring hard news mainly written by men. But according to lecturer and journalist Hanne Dam and the editors of B.T.’s women’s page there are lots of relevant stories beyond that logic.
FORUM 9.2.2006
Hard journalism enjoys the greatest prestige in editorial offices, so that’s what finds its way to the front pages – news about politics, economy and financial affairs, which can be given a sharp angle, says Ida Schultz, media sociologist at Roskilde University and author of the PhD thesis Bag om nyhedskriterierne [Behind the News Criteria].

Ida Schultz has investigated how events become news; her research deals with news as a product of written and unwritten ground rules in the editorial offices of print and electronic media. Her account of the criteria behind the selection of a news item is based on observing journalists and editors as a kind of tribal community:
- An event does not become news simply via the event itself or any famous faces it might feature. It is just as much a question of whether this event fits into the news profile on a particular day or into the editorial culture of a specific news media, and especially if it gives the journalist involved or the media involved a pole position in relation to the other media, says Ida Schultz.

- In any editorial office everyone agrees that today we’re going to make the world’s best newspaper, ahead of our competitors. But in the battle to make the best newspaper there is only one journalist who is going to make the front page. It’s ruthless, individual, ego-fuelled competition, says media sociologist Ida Schultz of news making.
- In my research I try to pry into whether the logic of hard news, which gives recognition and a pat on the back from colleagues, also benefits the public.

Where are the women?
Statistics from the Danish Union of Journalists show that there are four men for every one woman in the newsrooms of Danish print media. On Denmark’s three national newspapers (Politiken, Berlingske and Jyllands-Posten) only one editor in ten is a woman, according to Stine Carsten Kendal’s article Hangorillaer på avisernes gule stue (Alpha-males in the newsroom playground ) in the book Grib Magten. Om kvinder og ledelse [Seize Power. On Women and Management, 2004 Eds. Annette Nielsen and Gunhild Riske). And there are only two female editor-in-chiefs in the entire country.

So – does the unequal gender distribution in editorial offices also influence the editorial selection of news?

In Norway and Sweden, for example, media strategies are addressing issues of gender and visibility and are deliberately bringing in women experts.

In Denmark statistics relating to women in media or research that illuminates gender and media are few and far between. Professor Birgitte Tufte from Copenhagen Business School counted the specialist professionals featured on the front page of the broadsheet Politiken in an arbitrary week in April 2004: there were 52 men and seven women. Ann Lehmann Erichsen, lawyer and journalist, also identified an unequal gender distribution when she looked at who was interviewed for a hard news programme on Denmark’s DR2 television channel: in 2005 women comprised 37% of the specialist interviewees.

Missing out on the good stories
According to Hanne Dam, lecturer in journalism at Roskilde University and formerly a journalist on the broadsheet Information, editorial decision-makers miss out on lots of good stories because they omit to consider gender:
- We have stopped systematically focussing on gender, because we think we’re so advanced in our process of achieving equality. Electing to see the word through women’s eyes is considered old-fashioned and, therefore, we don’t approach the issue methodically. But when it doesn’t happen automatically, well, then we miss out on lots of stories, says Hanne Dam.

On the pages of Information from 1977 until 1999 she depicted the world putting on gender glasses – for which she was awarded the prestigious 1980 Cavling Prize (an annual award from the Danish Union of Journalists). The Cavling committee said that Hanne Dam “...has in recent years promoted feminist material and, in articles covering a wide spectrum of issues relevant to women, she has given a whole new dimension to the gender role debate, which has in turn influenced other media.”

Hanne Dam notes that today there is a general absence of this gender awareness, both in editorial offices and on journalism training courses – even though 45% of journalism students in Denmark are women.

- Danish journalism courses show a total lack of awareness around gender issues. Journalists in Norway and Sweden are trained to follow a clear strategy as regards women and gender: in opting for female specialists we also get to hear what women are saying, and we initiate research projects on issues relevant to women’s lives, says Hanne Dam.

She is convinced that we miss out on many topical and pertinent stories with relevance to the perception of women and gender issues in general – items dealing with politics, economy and careers, for example. The decisive factor is which editor and through which lens raw material supplied via a report, a press release or a news agency is viewed and thus how it then gets turned into a story.

Gender awareness among journalism students
At Roskilde University two-thirds of journalism students are women, which is above the national average. Having roamed a feminist wilderness for years, the students are now beginning to demonstrate a new awareness, notes Hanne Dam:

- I have just supervised several groups in research-heavy journalism and two of the eight topics concerned gender issues: young women wearing head scarves and the
gender segregated labour market, she says.

This could be because Hanne Dam has put on her gender glasses again, this time by stepping into the role of feminist teacher. She has observed that today her proposals for projects dealing with political women’s issues are more readily accepted than they would have been just three years ago. The female journalism students have gradually become more aware of gender:
- I see my students on internships taking up topics relevant to women. But I make sure I’m very low key about it, because it has to come from them, says Hanne Dam, and concludes:

- There is still no awareness of gender among the teaching staff, but the students are really getting there – the male students as well, even though it’s the women who are doing the reporting on gender issues.

All women editorial office
The tabloid newspaper B.T. has a Sunday supplement for women, For Women Only, in which stories are approached in classic journalistic mode – albeit with the difference that the editorial office is staffed solely by women. According to the editor Rikke Andreasen this opens up both for new subject matter and new angles, which otherwise get lost in the male-dominated editorial offices:

- Stories about breast cancer, for example, which both we and other newspapers carry at regular intervals. Men are more interested in the hard-news story – if there’s been medical carelessness or lack of financial resources – whereas For Women Only focuses on living with breast cancer and we investigate why there is such a high incidence of the disease and why so little is being done to redress this. That’s what matters to so very many women.

Items relating to careers appear, by and large, in all newspapers, but For Women Only looks at the topic from a woman’s angle.
- Articles dealing with careers are a case in which women need different information and a different journalistic approach than men, because women face different challenges in the job market than men. Equal pay, for example, is a big issue, or who picks up the kids? says Rikke Andreasen, and at the same time squashes the myth that there is a dearth of interesting women’s material – a myth that is still going strong along the editorial corridors of power. Also thriving well is the myth that it is difficult to find female specialist commentators, even though KVINFO has an easily accessible database listing more than 1,400 experts in their fields.

- We’ve got more interesting stories lined up than time to write them, says Rikke Andreasen and, in this context, mentions that For Women Only does not cover homes, cookery or travel, which are otherwise the traditional ‘women’s copy’ in the media.

Anne Absalonsen is Editor of the Global Section of Ugeskrift for læger

Translation: Gaye Kynoch
Danish newspapers


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