2022: A Turning Point for Women in the News?

07/03/2023     4 min read     By Ahlem Khattab

From left to right, top to bottom: Francesca Donner, Mariya Shahsawar, Pamela Morinière and Haanya Malik

Behind the news. Afghan reporters Mariya Shahsawar and Haanya Malik, US-based editor Francesca Donner, and French gender expert on media and head of Communications at the International Federation of Journalists Pamela Morinière reflect on the past year and what it means for the future of journalism.

Looking back on the past year, one cannot help but notice that women were at the heart of some major stories that we’ve seen and heard in mainstream news outlets.

In February 2022, when war broke out in Ukraine, women at the forefront — fighting, resisting, rebuilding — made the headlines. In June, we saw protesters all over the United States oppose the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court, which affected abortion rights. In September, the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody set off Iranians who took to the street to demand fundamental rights and freedom. By the end of the year, in Afghanistan, the Taliban had suspended women and girls’ access to secondary and higher education, along with restricting many of their basic rights. And that’s just to name a few big moments.

What does that mean for journalism, though? Was 2022 a turning point? Some sort of proof that gender perspectives are effectively more present in journalism? Or is it all just circumstantial?

“This is such a chicken or egg question,” says Francesca Donner, former gender director at the New York Times and a longtime editor (NYT, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes). “And I, for one, can’t help wondering: Are newsrooms covering women more, or is it that more women are making more waves in more visual and vocal ways, such that newsrooms have to cover them?”

“The media of the [developing] world are part of this battle that has been formed for equality and the liberation of women from extremism.” — Haanya Malik, reporter for Afghan newspaper Hasht-e Subh Daily

But what happens once women are out of sight? What’s going on in Afghanistan shows us that it’s not as easy to keep the attention on those kinds of events. “These stories are most likely to be lost as the women are not in the public eye in the same way. Mainstream news tends to follow the lead of Taliban announcements — yet another human right lost (school, parks, fun fairs). It’s sort of incredible, if you think about it, that newsrooms are taking their cues from the Taliban.”

A reporter and social activist, Haanya Malik currently writes for the non-profit independent Afghan newspaper Hasht-e Subh Daily. She has been closely following what’s happening in the region, but through a different filter. “Maybe some of the media in the [developed] world look at the challenges of women in the [developing] world as a news subject, but the media of the [developing] world are part of this battle that has been formed for equality and the liberation of women from extremism.” The lines between journalism and activism get blurry when you’re living under a regime that denies its people fundamental rights. However you report on a story, you’re part of it by just giving it any attention.

“What I have witnessed as a woman in the [developing] world is that journalists — both male and female, despite all the economic and security difficulties in Iran and Afghanistan — have done their best to convey women’s voices,” she adds.

Also from Hasht-e Subh Daily, long-time human rights activist and writer Mariya Shahsawar believes that covering issues affecting women is indeed circumstantial for newsrooms, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing. “Such circumstantial topics eventually become a trend in newsrooms and continue for many years. In particular, the current situation of women in Afghanistan sets up a baseline and a momentum for continuation of the topic. Journalists who are covering these issues will keep providing updates in the future.”

But then there is “the never-ending problem of audience fatigue,” as Francesca points out. Readers, listeners, viewers are all too used to moving on from one thing to another rather quickly, which seems to be a global phenomenon. “So the onus on the newsroom becomes: How do I keep chasing this down, following it, making it relevant, even after the fatigue has set in? That’s hard work, but for the people we cover, it really, really matters.”

“Generally speaking, at least from a western perspective, I think the media are paying more attention to women.” — Pamela Morinière, head of Communications at the International Federation of Journalists

Although we will still have to wait a few years to see — in numbers — how significant the past year has been and its impacts on the future of journalism, Pamela Morinière is optimistic there is a positive trend. The former journalist specializes in gender and has been working at the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) for more than 20 years. “Generally speaking, at least from a western perspective, I think the media are paying more attention to women. Progress is slow if you look at the Global Media Monitoring Project results for 2020 and the low percentage of women who appear in the news over the years, but we can tell there is a slow improvement in certain parts of the world.”

Looking at the twelve months ahead, Francesca Donner, Haanya Malik, Mariya Shahsawar and Pamela Morinière intend on keeping a focus on gender in their work.  Women and leadership on the global stage, online violence and hatred directed toward women, the gender pay gap and unpaid labor are some of the subjects Francesca will be further exploring. Haanya will try to reconnect with the history of women’s movements to better tell today’s stories “and open new doors of conversations for women’s freedom fighters.” Mariya will try to further amplify the voices of rights activists in Afghanistan. As for Pamela, along with IFJ, she will be striving to help improve the working conditions for women journalists in the world through different campaigns denouncing issues such as online abuse or the specific difficulties when reporting in conflict zones.

Correction made on March 8, 2023: It was previously stated in this article that Pamela Morinière was Belgian, but she is French.

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