A society's stereotypes are all too often absorbed into the professional arena and journalism is no exception. This book brings out the urgency of understanding how gender biases operate in the media... ADITI SESHADRI
I n the introduction to the book Missing: Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters, journalist and writer Kalpana Sharma observes: ‘A journalist is not just a journalist. She or he carries baggage, from earlier socialisation, from present day influences and from realities about which they had no choice – such as gender or caste... Only the more honest (journalist) will admit that there can never be anything like “objective” journalism and that everything we write is ultimately mediated by our own hidden and open biases'.
This observation is central to the premise of the book — that journalism often absorbs the hierarchies and stereotypes that exist in society, which manifests in the selection of stories, the way stories are reported and whose stories are told. In this case, gender. And so, through a collection of essays by some of India's most respected women journalists, Missing: Half the Story, Journalism as if Gender Matters discusses the meaning and need for gender sensitive journalism.
The book opens with a section titled ‘Understanding Gender', which aims to bring journalists (and other readers) up-to-speed with all the relevant terms and issues. Ammu Joeseph's opening essay, ‘The Battle of the Sexes and Other Myths', deconstructs the meaning of gender (which is different from sex, for instance), patriarchy (which refers to a system of male privilege and dominance) and – the much-maligned – feminism (awareness and action against that system). In the next essay, Laxmi Murthy cites the example of the 2009 controversy over South African athlete Caster Semenya gender test to discuss the definitions, ideas and perceptions of gender. The third essay discusses women's movements, including the more recent struggles against dowry and domestic violence.
While all three essays are informative, and even essential for a true understanding of gender issues, they are likely to interest only a committed feminist, and intimidate the average journalist. The writing gets too academic and jargon-heavy at times, and touches upon too many issues that results in an information overload.
The fourth essay, ‘Gender Sensitivity on the Run', is more useful to journalists with a quick guide on how to infuse gender sensitivity in the newsroom, especially in the use of language.
Section two, ‘A Gender Lens', is where the book becomes engaging, with a collection of essays about how the Indian media cover certain issues. Sameera Khan's ‘When Survivors Become Victims' about the reportage of crime against women is especially important, given the abundance of crime stories featured in the mainstream media.
Using examples that make her arguments more current, Khan discusses issues like the media's violation of privacy, moralising and class bias: ‘The rape of a young college girl by a police constable on Mumbai's Marine Drive in April 2005 was extensively covered but the similar rape of a 15-year-old rag-picker by a policeman on duty near Mumbai's international airport'. Khan ends her essay with a checklist that could help a journalist report better on sexual assault and thereby correct some of the mistakes.
The following essays are about how a variety of subjects like climate change, water, land, agriculture, disaster and conflict, need be to be reported with a gender perspective. Sometimes this could mean just talking to women to get their story. For example, a woman labourer in Singur (where land was acquired for the Tata Nano factory) is quoted as saying, ‘Now I spend all my time walking – for fuel, for water, to go to work and come back. I have to cut down on my sleep and leisure... They (the men) won't feed the children, they won't help with the cooking, and I don't even expect them to'.
In another essay, Sharma talks about the ‘invisibility' of women in politics, economics and business: ‘If women are “half the human capital of India”, their struggles to find work and livelihood, to get bank loans, to get fair wages should form as much a part of reporting on the economy and business of a few Indian companies or reports about India's galloping growth rate'. The final essay in this section is about health reporting, with respect to not just women's health concerns but also women's perspective in public health diseases like TB, malaria, AIDS, etc.
Realities to the fore
The last section reproduces stories and columns that have appeared in websites, newspapers and magazines as examples of gender-sensitive writing. Covering subjects like water, land conflict, health, etc, these are a powerful reminder that there is always a woman's point of view and that it largely tends to be ignored.
And that's why, barring the sometimes difficult reading, Missing: Half the Story, Journalism as if Gender Matters is an important book – not only because it gives voice to women's perspectives and raises some important issues that we tend to forget – but also because it inspires better journalism.