The debate about whether the media is an influencer of opinion is done and dusted. The answer, for better or for worse, is a resounding yes! Given that it wields so much influence on its audiences, there is a need to pay close attention to the messaging being put out by it through content, be it in the form of news, features, entertainment or advertising.
The proliferation of the media took place without any homework, and ethics took a back seat to ‘growth’ and 'profitability'. All media - print and electronic, public as well as private, have bulldozed their way over a slew of issues, ranging from conflict reporting to child rights, minority rights, and of course, gender sensitivities.
The last has been a recurring theme as it has been a recurring problem. The portrayal of women in the media has ranged from misogynistic, to patronising to consciously reinforcing traditional stereotypes which show any woman who does not fit into a certain mould to be ‘bad’. ‘Bad’ also translates into a ‘westernised’ woman, so she has to be clad in western clothes while the ‘good woman’ can only be the one who wears eastern clothes and who bows her head in submission, giving up any thought of developing an identity for herself!
An entire generation has grown up fed on a diet where the positive role model of an educated, thinking, decision-making woman has been a rarity. If such a woman is shown, her character is usually appended with the downside of a poorly managed home. She can manage a business empire, or even a country, but she cannot be shown to be doing this at home as well.
An entire generation has grown up fed on a diet where the positive role model of an educated, thinking, decision-making woman has been a rarity.
Crimes against women take on a totally different connotation. Life shattering crimes like rape, or acid attacks are trivialised, the victim’s privacy violated, dignity crushed and innocence questioned. The suggestive, offensive headlines, lurid pictures and accompanying text go a step further when the crime is committed by a woman; Ayyan Ali’s involvement in the money laundering is a case in point.
This prompted Tasneem Ahmer, a seasoned journalist and media teacher to form UKS Media and Research to tackle these issues head on. Her 20 year struggle (and it has been nothing less than that) has resulted in the adoption of a gender sensitive Code of Conduct for the print electronic media.
Yet, the battle has only just begun, for the key lies in sensitising newsrooms about words, their connotations, and the nuances in the words and imagery that is presented to their audiences.
The gender gap within the media itself is a stumbling block. Despite the electronic media giving visible space to women, their numbers have not even hit double digits in percentiles. The same goes for vertical growth as very few women have broken the glass ceiling to reach the top decision making levels in the media - despite the fact that most universities that offer media as a subject see girls making up the majority in classrooms.
The gender gap within the media itself is a stumbling block. Despite the electronic media giving visible space to women, their numbers have not even hit double digits in percentiles.
Because there are so few women in the media, there is no one to point out that the ‘boys will be boys’ language, jokes and puns are not funny; they are offensive. This is why they find their way into news stories and features, and more so, in entertainment content such as TV plays. And because these TV plays have a captive audience of mainly of women, hence the stereotyping and reinforcing of the gender roles that defy all attempts at positive role models.
So who creates these characterisations where a woman achieves ultimate validation only by melting into the shadow of her man, despite suffering mental and physical abuse, and unfaithfulness? Are these characters flowing from the creative juices of our playwrights or are they moulded ‘on demand’ by channel producers and production houses who cannot jump off the cycle of ‘jo bikta hai, woh dikhta hai’ (We tell what sells)!
At a Roundtable organised by UKs to assess the issue and take on board all stakeholders, it was clearly spelled out by the writers that producers ‘demand’ meek, oppressed, victimised’ women because independent successful women do not ‘sell.’ Like the news media, here too misery sells!
The media owners and decision makers who were present cited various problems within the media where factors such as a lack of editorial judgment as well as adequate training and sensitisation leads to inappropriate content going public.
So if sales talk is what makes the flip side, ‘jo dikhta hai who bikta hai’ (what we show, sells) maybe it is time to turn the cannons towards those making the mare go with their money… the advertisers! In all the discourse on media content, these major stakeholders, who bear a huge responsibility for what goes by way of content, have largely been ignored, which is why maybe that is why change has been so slow in coming.
Not only does the content directly put out by advertisers to promote their brands further the gender insensitive, sometimes downright misogynistic agenda by making general products gender specific, it does even greater harm by supporting content that takes the same message across to audiences. The general consensus at the Roundtable was that advertisers need to be sensitised.
However, as rightly identified by Uks, the biggest stakeholders are media audiences. Proactive engagement is required by them to actively monitor content and complain about what they consider to be inappropriate. Roundtable moderator Javed Jabbar, set the context for the need for progressive, ethical and gender-sensitive content across all media. He emphasised the need for active engagement from media audiences to act as a watchdog and not passively.
The formation of the Uks Women’s Media Complaint Cell could be the first step in channelising such complaints in a manner that they become actionable. The Cell, as Tasneem explained, will be a proactive medium of engagement between the producers and consumers of media content so that it can become an agent of change as far as the gender sensitive portrayal of Pakistani women is concerned.
Javed Jabbar summed up the points gathered through the discussion and these were presented in the Resolution adopted by the participants:
Media need to be immediately engaged with when insensitive content is projected, by addressing urgent messages to the media to request retraction, and ensure that the offensive content is not repeated.
Only when all media bodies collaborate to ensure coordinated consistency can the content of media become abidingly ethical and gender-sensitive.
As advertisers shape a substantial part of media content, it is vitally important to initiate and sustain dialogue with them in order to discourage the production of gender-insensitive content.
Citizens have a major responsibility to create mechanisms that protest to media about content which is inappropriate or insensitive so that such feedback from citizens supplements efforts to enforce Codes of Conduct by PEMRA and by media organizations.
One hopes that the Cell goes beyond PEMRA’s passive Council of Complaints which has only come into action on politically motivated issues in the past and never intervening to stop the insensitive airing of content. Similarly, the other media bodies whose representatives were present, like CPNE, APNS etc. can also become active members to make a positive difference.