Missing: Half the Story, Journalism as if Gender Matters
Edited by Kalpana Sharma
Pages 296 (Paperback)
Year of Publication 2010
Zubaan, New Delhi
Missing: Half the Story, Journalism as if Gender Matters is edited by well-known journalist, Kalpana Sharma. It consists of articles on how to be gender sensitive and inclusive while writing for the media. The other contributors include veteran women journalists Ammu Joseph, Laxmi Murthy, Sameera Khan and Rajashri Dasgupta. Among others the articles include a historical perspective on women’s movements in India, difference in definitions of gender and feminism, a glossary of gender-sensitive terms and how to write from a gendered perspective on issues as diverse as “sexual assault to conflict to the environment as well as politics or health” (p.81)..
The book is a gold mine of information with nuggets like the lucid explanation of feminism. “The fact is that there is no single, static, universal definition of feminism. Like gender and patriarchy, it can and does vary across historical periods, geographical locations, class/caste/creed/race, and even schools of feminist thought. This diversity is, in many ways, its strength. …a broad definition of feminism was accepted by women at a South Asian workshop in the mid-1980s…[that] is an awareness of women’s oppression and exploitation in society, at work and within the family, and conscious action by women and men to change this situation”.
Targeting the general reader is a tough task, especially while trying to create a handbook on how to incorporate gender-sensitivity in everyday reports. This seemingly innocuous description of Meira Kumar is gender loaded: “the first woman Speaker of the Lok Sabha and has proved her ability to manage unruly parliamentarians despite what the media likes to call ‘her small voice’ and ‘soft reasonableness’.” (p.169) As Laxmi Murthy points out, “Gender sensitization helps journalists to identify and understand the attitudes, prejudices and biases and socialization that often come through in media messages. To the extent that understanding gender means understanding the subordination of women and marginalized genders, gender sensitivity includes recognizing and analyzing the marginalization and imbalanced portrayal of women and transgender people in the media.” (p.72)
There are brilliant sections like “What’s the good word? Reporting on transgender and sexual minorities” that contains a glossary of terms and what they actually mean. Terms like cisgender, coming out, gay, outing, MSM, and LGBTIQ” are explained clearly and sensitively. Following is a sample of gender-neutral language mentioned in the book:
Better half Wife, spouse
Lady doctor Doctor
Male nurse Nurse
Watchman Security guard
“Gender-biased language can cause the reader to focus on how you say something rather than what you say. In other words, form tends to overwhelm content. Besides being offensive, gender-biased language is shabby journalism. As Sonali Samarasinghe, Editor of the Morning Leader in Sri Lanka put it:”Good journalism does not have genitals.” (p.77)
Apart from instructing journalists on how to be gender-inclusive, the contributors also emphasize that ``gender-related stories are not necessarily sob stories. Take, for example, a 2008 story about how women in Orissa had the imagination to turn disaster into opportunity and, at the same time, serve the needs of fellow disaster-hit women: manufacturing low-cost sanitary napkins that are in particular demand in times of flood. The grain banks set up by women in some flood-prone villages near the Kosi river in Bihar provide another positive example: every mother set aside a fistful of rice every day in an effort to ensure the availability of food for their families, especially children, during periods of disaster.” Though the essays tackle familiar issues like women and health; women and the environment or even the politics of invisibility, it is the chapter on women and disasters that is refreshingly new.
Disasters, man-made or natural, have always made for interesting news. Not necessarily in terms of the magnitude of the disaster, but for the stories that emerge. Yet, more often than not, the gendered perspective is overlooked. But, as Ammu Joseph points out, “The onus on journalists covering disasters to investigate the role (if any) of gender in shaping people’s experience of and responses to disasters is all the greater because systematic research on women’s experiences during disasters, including floods, is scanty. Only recently have disaster researchers begun to pay serious attention to gender-based vulnerability to disasters, looking at how social roles influence people’s experiences of, preparedness for and response to disasters, as well as how disasters, in turn, influence these roles. For example, it is now known that women’s customary role as primary caregivers makes them more vulnerable because they must stay with, assist, protect, and manage the emotional, health and material need of family members. This reality, too, it is believed contributes to the high instance of female death during a tsunami.” (p.148)
Given the insights and advice that is shared by these seasoned journalists, it is a pity that a book like this consistently refers to examples from the print media though many of their citations are from the web. Gender sensitivity discussions should encompass all forms of media platforms, including television and the Internet. In fact, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter allow for comments in real time. For instance, online communities are quick to spot, critique and correct gender insensitive reporting. Indeed, were this non-fiction book made available online, say, as an e-book/blog/website, it would make it easier to refer as well as update, enhancing its usefulness.
Finally, the section with examples of good gender sensitive writing (section three) would have carried more weight had men also contributed. All the articles are by women, which is curious, considering Ammu Joseph’s article, “The Battle of Sexes and Other Myths” which refers to Gurcharan Das’s Times of India article on “Wanted: A World Fit for Women” as feminist writing. “As feminists have said time and again, feminism and women’s movements are not, as they are often portrayed, about “the battle of the sexes”. Anyone who recognises the existence and injustice of patriarchy and sexism (discrimination on the basis of sex) and who takes some action against such unfair systems and practices is a feminist. Many men fit this description of a feminist, whether or not they consciously adopt the label. Some women do not.”
No doubt subsequent editions will be proof read more carefully. This is too good a book to be riddled with so many errors. Missing: Half the Story, Journalism as if Gender Matters is a useful reference guide that should be mandatory reading for all associated with journalism—students and seasoned journalists, alike.