Minding the gap

Text by Aaron Israelsson. Photo by Andy Prhat.

For a long time, women seemed to have hit the glass ceiling in news coverage. But a worldwide project is set out to change that. Fojo’s Agneta Söderberg Jacobson is on the frontline of a battle aiming at bridging the gender gap in global journalism.

Swedish Prime minister Stefan Löfven had been in a meeting with his Estonian counterpart Jüri Ratas on whether to salvage the shipwreck of M/S Estonia, 26 years after it sunk.

The infamous surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, previously at the renowned medical institution Karolinska Institutet, was about to be charged for aggravated assault by public prosecutor Mikael Björk.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump had just headed off into their first debate.

Björn Eriksson, director of public health and hospitals for the Stockholm Region, announced new regulations concerning the spread of the novel Corona virus.

These were some of the most prominent Swedish news headlines on the 29th of September 2020.

Does anything strike you as peculiar about them? Possibly not. We are all too used to the gender bias: All of them are headlining men.

However, to thousands of volunteers in 120 countries around the world, this day marked a sharpened focus on who appears in the news, whose byline is attached to news items and which issues are highlighted.

The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) has been monitoring news and assembling statistics on the gender gap in world media since 1995. It is conducted by WACC Global (World Association for Christian Communication) together with local partners across the world. On a specific day every five years their worldwide volunteers record the news topics; whether the specific news items are international or national; the gender and age of the reporter  as well as of the interviewee; and in the latter case their profession.

They also look at the quotes attributed to different interviewees and whether the interviewees are described as victims or perpetrators. All in all, there are 26 parameters to be considered and registered in a common database from which the international team in Canada extracts a global analysis. In Sweden, the Department of Journalism Media and Communication (JMG, University of Gothenburg) has been in lead of the project since 2000. For the 2020 edition of the GMMP, Fojo and JMG joined forces.

Agneta Söderberg Jacobson, who works as Gender Advisor at Fojo, was one of the persons leading the monitoring exercise in Sweden. She also coordinated assistance to several of Fojo’s international partners that took part in the GMMP, in countries such as Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Russia. She explains why news is dominated by men, based on the stream of September 29.

“Among some groups of experts, men are still a majority, so when M/S Estonia is in the news the people interviewed are usually engineers and marine technicians, occupations where men still dominate. In news about restrictions surrounding the Corona virus, journalists chose to interview the presidents of all the larger sports federations, again men. Had the journalists consciously reflected about the gender bias they could have made an effort to find female expert engineers or, in the case of the news on sports, they might have interviewed other people, such as coaches or soccer players instead”, she says.

Do we need to count every name appearing in the news until we reach total equality?

“I would say that 50/50 is a benchmark to strive for over time, but it should not be applied rigidly. A news editor who would turn down a scoop, just because of gender imbalance (such an example has been used in Sweden to illustrate alleged gender extremism) is just an example of bad journalistic leadership.”

“On the other hand, people often say that, as a vast majority of decision makers are men, the role of journalists should be to simply reflect that reality. But the taskmaster of the press is the public. And journalism needs to reflect the general population. More gender equality and diversity in general will broaden the perspective and the angles of approach. If a man is heading the National Health Agency there might be a woman further down the ladder, perhaps even with a more interesting take on the issue at hand. The same goes for other categories, like for example ethnicity/race and disability. Media needs to broaden its scope to serve the full society”, says Agneta Söderberg Jacobson.

“Personally, I also believe the media to have an important role in challenging gender stereotypes that underpin inequalities between women and men.”

Is it only up to the reporters though? A lot of them claim that many women are not very keen on appearing in the news. 

“Yes, in Zimbabwe where we helped our media partners to establish a database with female politicians and experts, the journalists then claimed that these women did not want to talk to them. When the women later were asked why they said no to the media,, it turned out that they felt maltreated by the press. Our partner then tried to improve the dialogue between them and the journalists and gave the women media training. Since then, the database has actually come to use.”

Even in Sweden it can be more difficult to get women to agree to an interview.

“Traditionally women are less confident, although I don’t think that is a big problem nowadays. But it is still true that women are judged by their appearance to a much higher degree than men. This in turn, might make some women more self-aware and less inclined to appear in news media. Women leaders in politics and business are also more exposed to sexual harassment and threats in social media than their male counterparts.”

In online media women have, according to some studies, gone against the flow and increased their presence. How come?

“I believe that’s partly due to ownership. Women are better represented among publishers and owners of online media outlets and they have more leadership positions, especially internationally. In Myanmar for instance, they talk about women having surpassed men, they are very successful within tech companies, and are recruited to a higher extent than men. The digital landscape is a new world where women assert themselves.”

From Russia with love

Agneta Söderberg Jacobson sounds ever so committed when talking about countries far away from her office in the charming old town of Stockholm. Her heart is all over the world.

In 1991 she started covering the former Soviet Union as a journalist, having studied journalism at the University of Stockholm. The Berlin wall had come down and large swaths of Eastern Europe had liberated itself from the burden of communist oppression, but the Soviet Union was still, for a few more trembling months, standing. Although barely so.

“What I remember most vividly are all the strange food situations that appeared in daily life. I mean, the shelfs in stores were empty and I was co-living with an old lady who served disinfected chicken drained in pink liquid, together with juice made on apple peel.”

“When I flew there was cattle on the plane”, she adds.

The chaos made for excellent journalism, of course, and this is where a 27-year-old Agneta fully realised what democracy actually means.

“It was a marvellous experience as a journalist. My Russian colleagues had been so constrained in their profession and now suddenly all the archives were open.”

Fojo supports Russian and Belarusian journalists today, in a political climate that is deeply worrying.

“The situation in Russia and Belarus is depressing. The developments there are a great grief for me personally”, she says.

Burmese backsliding

In Myanmar the situation is possibly even worse. The country has just experienced a military coup. Agneta Söderberg Jacobson has worked with media projects in the country since 2013 and seen the progress towards democracy, but is also aware of the many challenges. The recent developments constitute a severe backlash, although there was some progress related to gender equality before the latest turn of events.

“When we started working in Myanmar no one seemed to have thought about the aspect of gender equality in the media. There was a Facebook group where some women journalists were discussing gender issues. We supported them and they have now founded an NGO. In Bangladesh there was not a single woman in investigative journalism when we started out. There has been a steady increase since.” 

“Now we see more female reporters there as well as in other countries. In some Eastern European countries, women outnumber men as reporters.”

“In Bangladesh there was not a single woman in investigative journalism when we started out. There has been a steady increase since.”

Most of the people who collect the statistics for GMMP around the world are volunteers. Is there a risk that they mess up during this rather complicated process?

Yes, but the risk is small. In most participating countries, the GMMP is a collaboration between civil society and academic researchers. In Myanmar for example, one of our local partners (Myanmar Women Journalist Society) is the national coordinator, but they get support from a national research institute. In Sweden we co-arranged the GMMP with University of Gothenburg, but the actual monitoring was done mainly by volunteers.

In the end, does gender equality really make a difference on what is reported in the news?

“Some studies show that gender does matter. Other studies are more ambiguous. In Russia female reporters seem to be as stereotype in their reporting as men. When there are only a few women in the news, they might feel a strong pressure to adapt.”

The glass ceiling

Some voices argue for legislative means such as affirmative action also related to gender equality in the media. A good idea?

“Even though I work with gender equality I’m unconvinced. Having the government correct the gap with laws collides with the freedom of expression and of the press. I am rather in favor of the Swedish system with autocorrective institutions such as the Press Ombudsman, but there might be a need for some soft policy from the government to create a favorable framework.”

But still, you have been working with this for so long and there is still too little progress. Wouldn’t you like to start a revolution?

“Yeah, maybe we should apply for a grant to start a world revolution”, Agneta Söderberg-Jacobson says with a cunning smile.

“But things have actually moved forward. When I started working at Fojo, almost 15 years ago, gender equality was not considered interesting or relevant in the media development community. A lot has happened since.”

At a certain point the development seems to get stuck, though. In the Nordics, considered the most equal place on earth, there appears to be a glass ceiling at 30 percent for women who appear in news media. How come?

“Yes, there does seem to be a limit at that number and beyond it we probably need other mechanisms to break through. We cannot be satisfied with 30 percent. There are more than 30 percent women in parliament, in government and among heads of government agencies. That really ought to have an impact on who we interview in our media. But I do believe this year’s figures will be higher.”

“The trick is to get the media outlets to realize their own interest. The newspaper Helsingborgs Dagblad in the south of Sweden is doing a great job with gender equality, but also on the issues they cover. Investigative journalism there is not only conducted within traditional male domains, but they also look at horse riding schools for instance. And they do this because they believe it is commercially viable to do so. Women are responsible for a large part of the household budget, and the advertisers want female readers to be able to relate to the news content. When media owners start recognizing this is an issue where you can make money and not a burden, then things will really start picking up speed.”


Note: The GMMP study is to be released in the beginning of June 2021. In Sweden, the GMMP 2020, was partly financed by the Gender Equality Agency.