Annette Young on Gender Reporting and How War Coverage Has Evolved
For our second episode of “Peer-to-Peer”, we had a chat with Annette Young, news anchor at France 24.
She is a news TV presenter and the host and creator of “The 51 Percent” on France 24, a show that strives to promote gender equality through a focus on women’s stories and perspectives in all fields.
Throughout her career, Annette Young has worked as a reporter, a producer and many other positions for different Australian and French news outlets such as The Sydney Morning Herald, Special Broadcasting Service and Agence France-Presse. She has also served as a France 24 correspondent in the Middle East for three years.
For our second episode of “Peer-to-Peer”, we had a chat with Annette Young, news anchor at France 24.
“When you see women in positions of power, women who are not afraid to express their opinions, women whose opinions are actually sought in the first place, the message that goes out to the viewer to begin with is that, in terms of gender difference, there isn’t any in this particular context [war]. That women are just as crucial and integral to the story as men are.” — Annette Young in Peer-to-Peer, episode 2
In this new episode of “Peer-to-Peer”, Annette Young tells us about how “The 51 Percent” came to be, the initial reactions she faced and how her colleagues’ take on it evolved over the years. We also talk about what the coverage of the war in Ukraine says about women’s representation in conflict-related stories.
Ahlem Khattab (Towards Equality) — How did you realize that you needed or wanted to have a show that focuses on women and women’s perspectives?
Annette Young — The story behind The 51 Percent is as follows. Back in 2013, which of course is now nine years ago, my French colleague Virginie Herz, who’s a very good friend of mine, approached me about this idea of having a women’s programme. And whenever you pitch for a new show at France 24, you’ve got to aim to get it replicated on the other language channels.
So when she came to me and talked about it, the idea was to have it on the French and English [channels]. And I’ll be frank with you as I tell everybody when I retell the story. She told me about this, and I sort of said… you know, look, I’m a feminist. There’s no doubt about it. I’m a former Middle East correspondent. My time in the Middle East really crystallised my views about my feminism because as you can imagine and appreciate, those issues are very important in that part of the world and are not really covered the way they should be. And so I said, you know, “I don’t really know that much.” And she said, “go away and read up on it and come back to me in a week’s time.”
And I came back, and I was mortified. And I said, you know, all this stuff — which to me was like white noise in the background, in terms of gender pay gap, sexual discrimination… — when you start looking at the hard, cold facts, like a journalist, these are very important stories that are not being covered. So, yes, let’s do it. And we got the green light.
Believe it or not, initially I was given a day a week to do the programme. Fortunately, that quickly changed and it became two days a week. And I’m delighted to say hopefully by next year, 2023, I’ll be working on the show three days a week. We had very limited resources. And, you know, this is where you have to be creative. I always say people who work in newsrooms with very little money or resources tend to be the best in the industry because you don’t have the money, you have to think outside the box. So that’s what we did.
And people sort of, when we started it was like, “oh, that should be a relatively easy show to do.” Nope. Even the simplest task, like, for instance, if we had a very small item about, you know, somebody achieving a position of importance in the world of high finance, trying to find images of women in high finance for what we call in the industry an OOV — which means out of vision, a sort of little item with the newsreader reading across the top of the vision — we couldn’t find it because there wasn’t any! And we had access to archives in France Télévision and at that time also TF1.
And that just showed you how little women were covered in the day to day news coverage that if you couldn’t even find a simple thing of, like, a 10 second image or 30 seconds worth of images of women in corporate finance or women in law or stuff like that. It just says so much.
And how did it get greenlit?
We were lucky in that the director general of France 24, France Media Monde as it’s now known, Marie-Christine Saragosse liked the idea and as a result supported it and has supported it ever since. I think… for some of my male peers, it was probably a bit of a quizzical “hmm?” but I think they’ve realized in the last nine years, I mean, now we’ve been on air for the best part of a decade, what has changed. Primarily #MeToo; you know, the rise of women in positions of power; a whole lot of gender issues have now hit the front pages for the want of a better phrase. So news wise, we are now legitimate in their perspective. I would have argued that we were legitimate from the moment we first went to air. But I understand, you know, you have to change people’s attitudes. And it’s a long, slow haul. And I think it’s very difficult for news executives to understand that there is so much a need for this programme.
We are not, you know, doing anything negative by putting a focus on women. Far from it. It’s a very positive move.
And after the show went on air, did you notice a change within the newsroom? Were people focusing more on gender all of a sudden?
Oh, yes. And that to me was probably the most crystal result of what I’ve done for the last decade. It’s watching my colleagues now come forward with story ideas, ideas of potential guests. And they watch it. And that’s really lovely. Because our industry, it’s very time-intensive, labor-intensive. And it’s very hard to actually watch television at the end of the day because you’re just constantly working in this medium. So to me, that is the biggest compliment.
We recently did a full length report where we went to the U.S. to cover abortion rights leading up to the midterms. And the reaction to that show has been extraordinary, both in terms of people outside the network, but also within the newsroom. And, again, it’s been really rewarding because it hits home. This is how important it is.
And, I mean, again, there you go. The three biggest stories of the last 14 months: Afghanistan, Ukraine, you know, 90% of those refugees are women and girls; and Roe v. Wade, the demise of Roe v. Wade and what that meant for the political landscape of America. Those are three enormous news stories. And so, you know, thanks to, you know, my colleagues and now understanding and appreciating what we do, it’s certainly helping us in producing extra content.
You mentioned Ukraine. And for this new issue of our In the Balance newsletter, we are focusing on women and peace. Women are often represented in the media as victims whenever we talk about conflicts, wars. Did you notice a change that happened with the coverage of the war in Ukraine?
I do think in terms of– yes, I do. I would agree. There has been a shift. I would say within a week of the war starting, we did a program where we managed to contact via Skype a female officer for the Ukrainian army who was literally about to go out the door and join the front line. We had also via Skype a woman who was hiding in the cellar of a friend’s house in a village north of Kiev with her family and her partner fighting for the Ukrainian army. And we had a Ukrainian Franco filmmaker. Three incredibly strong women. And I think the message got out there very quickly and clearly that. You know, in this case, for instance, I forget what the percentage of women were fighting in the Ukrainian military, but it was all relatively higher than average to begin with. And I think those numbers have well and truly shot up obviously since February this year. That says a lot. So I think that helps the story, a lot.
But in addition, you know, we’ve seen a lot of interviews with Ukrainian women politicians. And again, this all comes back to role modelling. When you see women in positions of power, women who are not afraid to express their opinions, women whose opinions are actually sought in the first place, the message that goes out to the viewer to begin with is that in terms of gender difference, there isn’t any in this particular context, that women are just as crucial and integral to the story as men are.
And do you feel a shift in journalists’ perspectives, the way they talk about women now in the news, in the context of war and conflicts?
I think yes. And why? Because there’s more female war correspondents. As a former Middle East correspondent, I was in Jerusalem for a period of seven years. I came back to Paris in 2010. When I was first out there, the number of prominent women correspondents was certainly not what it is today. And you could see that in the coverage from a number of outlets, not just English-speaking outlets, but a number of outlets internationally who are now sending women into war zones.
So I think inevitably when you do, whether you like it or not, it is a different perspective. And it reflects in the news coverage, and the news coverage is much better for it.
And to finish this off nicely, what would be the advice or the message you want to leave other journalists who are listening, who are maybe reading the overview tips? What would you leave them with?
Don’t give up. Don’t give up. It’s so important what you want to do. And there is a place for this reporting. And I know at times you might feel like you’re alone, that you don’t get the required amount of support, but keep in mind there are people out there who are doing the same thing. Also have a sense of humour. I think that helps. And it’s just fundamental.
I will note here that it is very sad that we don’t, as I say, have gender reporting to the level that it should be. And I would be saying to those news executives and management, you should be thinking very seriously about this. Because, I mean, the benefits are just enormous. And again, it’s sort of like everything involving women’s rights. For instance, the demise of Roe v. Wade means now that same-sex marriage is under threat in the U.S., that transgender rights are under threat. The moment you do anything to roll back the progress of 51% of your population, a lot of other people, beyond just women, are going to be impacted.
And I think that’s why, in terms of as reporters, as people working in newsrooms, need to understand that this is crucial. This is fundamental. And I would argue that every media outlet of a certain size needs to have either a programme like ours or reporters doing our sort of work.