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There’s a large, ongoing conversation about how the representation of female subjects in the media, from the focus on female politicians’ looks to painting sexual assault survivors as complicit and deserving. Today, I’m going to dip into the mire that is the treatment of female presenters and reporters.

This post was inspired by two things. Firstly, I was watching a lot of CNN while in Melbourne a few weeks ago, which finally woke me up to how rubbish commercial free-to-air network news is in Australia. Mostly, my problem with it is what passes for news: natural disasters that kill hundreds get perhaps a brief mention, while the latest sporting scandal is the top story. Also, it’s quite Australian-centric, which skews the perception of what’s actually important, hard news elsewhere or non-news here.

Secondly, I was remembering what John Westacott, the head of news at Channel Nine here in Australia, is alleged to have said to a group of female journalists in 2007:

‘Sheilas do health and consumer stories, the second break stuff [after the second advertisement break on commercial television]. You want your blokes, your main guns, doing the real news stories.’

So, how common is that attitude?

Well, it has certainly been a prominent one in Australia. Famously, in 2006, Channel Ten presenter Tracey Spicer was dismissed. I always liked her quite a lot, and this made me like her even more:

The popular journalist is sueing – not for money but for the many TV women sidelined when they get old or start a family, while males prosper.

As Spicer’s agent, John Fordham, goes on to say, Ron Wilson, who has been presenting the 5 o’clock news for years with a succession of blonde women, ‘doesn’t have this issue.’

As for Ten’s response, the sacking was ‘related to continued restructuring within Ten’s news division and associated cost efficiencies’. Gotcha. As long as they’ve got ‘more female news presenters than any other Australian commercial television network, with at least one female news presenter in every bulletin in every state,’ they can fire those troublesome excess women. Couldn’t possibly get rid of any of the men on the roster. Must have been a choice between her and fellow Sydney-based mother and presenter Natarsha Belling, huh? (They shared newsreading duties for a time.)

Here’s a BBC article with an overview of female presenters in the UK.

These are the most commonly asked questions of a female news presenter. See if you can guess which one is asked of our male colleagues.

• What do you wear under the desk?
• How do you juggle family life with work?
• Do you ever get saucy letters?
• What time do you get into the newsroom?
• What is your favourite recipe?
• How do you keep your sex life interesting after 10 years of marriage? (Well, I was only asked that once but it was pretty gobsmacking.)

The article goes on to quote from an old Daily Mail piece:

“The plain fact is that the news is one of those rare TV items which requires one simple no-nonsense characteristic from its vendor – authority. And how many women do you know who can even begin to appear and sound authoritative while remaining attractively feminine?”

And you know that’s what’s going through people’s minds even now. In related reading, here’s an article from Variety talking about how female voiceover artists have difficulty finding work because the male voice is thought to be more authoritative – “right” or “normal”.

In November, Muslimah Media Watch covered some of the difficulties faced by hijab-wearing women presenting on Egyptian television. As presenter Ghada El Tawil, who has been fighting to work in her television jobs since 2002, says in a 2008 BBC piece:

‘When I covered my hair, I didn’t lose my ability to read the news.’

and, in a 2007 story,

‘If I was a doctor or a university professor there would be no problem about me wearing a hijab on television, so why can’t I do it reading the news.’

Which really shows this policing for what it is.

There are organizations set up to fight this kind of thing. In the US, check out the Women’s Media Center. The statistics summary presented here is of particular interest with regard to women in a variety of roles in the media. And America is fortunate enough to have Rachel Maddow presenting on MSNBC, of course.

You should check out the Global Media Monitoring Project. It was put together by The World Association for Christian Communication, which is something of a misleading name (check the about page). The mission is right on the front page:

On 16th February 2005 the world’s news media came under scrutiny when hundreds of people in over 76 countries monitored the representation and portrayal of women and men in news on television, radio and in newspaper. A year on, groups in over 50 countries launched the results of that incredible effort and challenged the media to ensure that fair gender portrayal becomes a professional criterion like any other such as balance, fairness and honesty which all good journalists should aspire to in their work.

Excellent, no? 12,893 news items on television, radio and in newspapers were monitored, according to the FAQ. There’s interesting content on women as subjects there, if you’re looking for information on that front, too. To pull out only a few statistics from the Top 10 Highlights in the 2005 report:

• Women made up 53% of presenters and 37% of reporters on television
• 29% of stories in newspapers were written by women
• 32% of politics and government stories were reported on by women, as opposed to 40% of stories on social issues including education and family relations

The exclusion and control of women as reporters and presenters is a global and continuing problem. If the very people who are supposed to help us expand our views of the world through the mechanism of the media are limited so, we’re not going to grow that fast as a society.