September 2 and 3, Radio Women, in collaboration with UN Women and the Government of Canada, organized a two-day media training on reporting by women. We talked about the under-representation and misrepresentation of women in the media. Many journalists present admitted that they did not represent women enough in their reporting and that they did not do enough to present women in a better light – as experts, as professionals, as as people capable of making decisions, etc. Read all about it here.
Seyi Soremekun, while educating us about the misrepresentation of women in the media, shared slides with titles that said, “Mother of five picks up gubernatorial ticket”, “Ojukwu’s widow picks up senatorial candidacy” and told us asked to debate whether or not the headlines were okay. Some said the former would be an encouragement to other mothers. “If this woman can aspire to become governor after 5 children, other women will be encouraged to step up, politically.” Others, like me, felt that language despised women and their works. Words are powerful, and the choice of words journalists use steers conversations in a certain direction. Journalists write headlines based on how they perceive people would react to them, so those who choose to use those words know what they are doing; they want the audience to focus on a particular message, above other messages. We all agreed that the second headline was wrong.
There is a certain way of talking about women in the media – dismissive, demeaning, objectified, portrayed as ignorant people, portrayed as political wannabes who are just wasting their time. Often they are used to fill in the blanks or tick off the “gender balance” list. This is what Women Media sought to correct by bringing together journalists for this training.
We were divided into groups and tasked with proposing solutions to the low representation of women in the media. My team found tips on how to report women and because I’m nice, I decided to share them with you.
The first is to point out women from a point of view of strength and not of weakness. Report women as subjects, as subject matter experts, not as objects. For the purposes of this essay, we will use the Bianca Ojukwu title as a case study.
Say his name
“The Widow of Ojukwu” has a name: Bianca Ojukwu. We all agreed that Bianca is also (almost) a household name, and using her name would have gotten better traction (if that’s the point) than The Widow of Ojukwu. To remind the world that she is a widow is to put her in a box that she may have a hard time getting out of. A woman does not need to be related to a man – dead or alive – to be recognized or acknowledged. As journalists, this is what we aim to correct, for Bianca and every woman. Rather than saying “mother of five,” mention the woman’s name. Rather than saying “a married woman wins the prestigious award”, mention her name.
Mention his qualities
We learned that the “mother of five” was indeed a lawyer during the training, and we agreed that it would have been great if she was portrayed that way, as she was running for political office. Her qualifications would have sold her better. Bianca Ojukwu is a politician, diplomat, lawyer, businesswoman and former Nigerian Ambassador to Ghana and Spain. A woman who wears these hats is clearly more than “Ojukwu’s widow”. The Widow of Ojukwu could have been written as “former Nigerian Ambassador to Spain, Bianca Ojukwu”. When reporting women, it’s important to focus on their strengths and qualifications.
Mention his works
So many women are doing amazing things in the country and beyond. One way to show women in a positive light and from a strength and ability perspective is to focus on the work they do. What did these women do? What are they doing? How do they impact their communities, the country and society in general? Are they founders or employees? Have they spoken at conferences or participated in international events? Involved in charities? Be part of certain organizations? Reach out to them, ask about their work, and report it from that angle.
Declare your contributions
Whether it’s participating in certain conversations, giving voice to movements like the #EndSARS protests, or share their opinions on pressing socio-economic, political or cultural issues, women’s voices must be heard – as experts, as contributors, as opinion shapers, as people who influence thought processes. A good way to highlight women is to amplify their contributions to society and the world.
Giving voice to their aspirations
Recently, many women have expressed their dreams and aspirations. Many are vying for political office and applying for greater opportunities. It is important to amplify the voices of these women. When you report them, do so knowing that your choice of words can shape how they will be perceived.
If you ever wonder how to report women, let this serve as your quick guide. Beyond gender balance in our stories, we need to make sure there’s a balance in how those stories are told as well. Above all, you should never sacrifice quality on the altar of sensationalism. It’s tempting to want to create a sensational headline to make people want to click, but as one of the journalists said during the training, “we shape people’s thinking, that’s what we produce that people will consume. Over time, they will learn to consume better, more nuanced reporting. We must never let the public’s love of sensationalism dictate how we tell our news.