Pamela Morinière on the IFJ’s Response to Sexism in Political News

15/05/2023     10 min read     By Ahlem Khattab

Pamela Morinière

The International Federation of Journalists’ gender expert tells us about the specifics of their project “Rewriting the story: Gender, media and politics,” what sexist question a famous German politician was asked that shocked her the most, and how she sees the future of gender equality in the news.

With a law degree and journalism training, Pamela Morinière spent most of her career with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)* where she developed an expertise in gender in the media. She is now their head of Communications and involved in all projects with a gender component to them.

One of the organization’s latest big programs revolving around women’s representation in the news is Rewriting the story. It aims to “improve gender portrayal in politics,” with a focus on training and shifting perspectives in leadership spaces. The EU-funded project is currently looking to recruit two more journalists that wish to be trained and become trainers themselves.

Pamela Morinière tells us all about it, and reflects on over two decades of observing how women and men politicians are portrayed in the news.

*Founded in 1926, the International Federation of Journalists now represents 600 000 media professionals from 187 trade unions and associations in more than 140 countries.

In December 2022, the IFJ kicked off a project for a more gender-inclusive coverage of politics. What brought this about?

Pamela Morinière — Many ethical codes around the world endorse the principle [of gender equality]. Yet, there are loads of issues when it comes to how the media talk about women and men in general, and politicians in particular.

Years ago, we were involved in another project that was already focusing on this issue of representation. It was called Portraying Politics. We put together a toolkit and a DVD. It was in 2006, I believe. We focused a lot, for example, on Angela Merkel because at the time she had just won the election and entered the Chancellery. It was a good illustration of how women had been badly portrayed in the news. But now we have more women politicians. We can see a sort of improvement in how they are portrayed, but there’s still a big issue. I don’t know if you had a look at the Global Media Monitoring Project’s findings — it’s pretty grim.

The Portraying Politics toolkit has been widely shared around the world and used. We got a lot of positive feedback about it so we thought we’d do it again, adapt it to the current situation. We don’t have the same kind of budget, but we still want to do something to make a difference. And now you can find lots of things online, you don’t need to have a DVD anymore, you don’t need to print a very glossy toolkit. 

The numbers clearly show that there’s still a stark lack of representation. That’s quantity-wise. But when it comes to quality, were there instances of news coverage that struck you over the years? 

At the time of Portraying Politics, we used an example of Angela Merkel being asked to go and speak in a very famous German program on politics. A man politician had been interviewed a couple of weeks before her, and he was asked about how he would behave with Putin, with the leaders in the world, what he would say to them, etc. And when she was interviewed, she was presented with a photo of Brad Pitt, the actor Brad Pitt, and she was asked what she thought of him…

I think nowadays, in a very respected political program, you wouldn’t see that kind of mistake anymore. But then… the day Jacinda Ardern resigned, you could see the BBC website asking if women can “have it all.” And it’s just like, for God’s sake, we’re in 2023 and the BBC is asking these kinds of questions. It’s really sad that after all these years, all the efforts, we still get this, and from the BBC, which is known for all its work in favor of gender equality

“We say ‘journalists don’t do their job properly,’ but actually, it’s not just about journalists. It’s also about what is considered ‘newsworthy’ in newsrooms, and that doesn’t only depend on journalists.”

What is also new now is that we have a new generation of journalists, and a new generation of people consuming news not necessarily in the way that we’re used to. And this new generation has, I think, at least in some parts of the world now, a new vision of what equality is. They are even more shocked when they hear certain things. I’m now quite a fierce defender of gender equality, but I remember when I started working on this project in 2006, it was the beginning of my career, and I had no idea of what gender equality in the news really meant. People had to open my eyes. I mean by looking at the news programs, at television programs, I could see it once I was told “look at this, look at that.” I didn’t have the spontaneous reaction of saying “wow, this is wrong,” which I think the new generation of journalists has now to a certain degree. It’s reassuring, and I think that’s definitely progress. But the news is done by all kinds of journalists so they all need to be trained at some stage.

Training is a major part of this newer project the IFJ launched. What does the program entail exactly?

For this new project, called Rewriting the Story, we have three different angles. First of all, we wanted to work with universities because we wanted to target the future generation of journalists, and also because they do a lot of research and we needed to back our toolkit with sufficient data. And so that was the role of a group of students from the University of Padova [in Italy]. We also wanted to build bridges between the media sector and these future journalists by giving them an opportunity to prepare some projects online in line with our own project. They came up with fantastic ideas. The experience was really valuable for both sides, I think. 

Second, we have the training. We put together a series of modules* on portraying women and men politicians in the news, with an intersectionality angle throughout the program. The modules are now really in the final phase. We had several people reviewing them including the IFJ Gender Council, which is composed of women journalists from across the world. What’s interesting about these modules is that they are using some concrete examples from the news. There is also some work that has been done on transgender issues. So we’re covering different angles. Now we’re entering the phase of teaching journalists how to improve their reporting on politicians. We’re organizing two sets of training sessions in two different parts of Europe: one in Cyprus, and one in Croatia. We’re bringing together representatives of journalist unions in each of the sessions and training them so they become trainers, too. The idea is to build sustainability in journalist unions so that they have in-house trainers that can teach other journalists. These training sessions are taking place in May and June, and then each journalist gets back to their own country and has to run a training session with journalists from there. 

The third element of this project is to change the mindsets in newsrooms. We are partnering with COPEAM [Conference of the Mediterranean Audiovisual Operators], an organization representing public broadcasters in the Mediterranean region, to improve not only the dialogue between unions and broadcasters — which is usually quite tense — but also the editorial approach. It’s on a voluntary basis, and our partner found very quickly six broadcasters that were ready to take on the experience such as Rai in Italy and RTVE in Spain. So we are putting together a team of members of unions and a team of broadcasters, and they have to set some clear objectives on how they want to improve gender equality in their newsrooms. You can’t only focus on news content, you also have to develop some strong policies in your newsroom. Very often when we have these discussions about gender equality in the news and when the Global Media Monitoring Project’s results are made available, we look at the numbers and we are appalled, of course. We say “journalists don’t do their job properly,” but actually, it’s not just about journalists. It’s also about what is considered “newsworthy” in newsrooms, and that doesn’t only depend on journalists. There are decision-makers that are setting the editorial lines. So we really wanted to address this issue.

Can any journalist take part in the training sessions? What’s the process?

The only condition is that they have to be members of our unions in Europe. For the trainers’ training sessions, we’re missing a couple of trainers in certain countries. And when the training is going to be done at national levels, our unions will probably launch a call in order to bring journalists together. If you follow us on social media, we will alert our followers when there are opportunities.

It will start this year, probably after the summer. But our unions might link their training to national elections so probably a couple of weeks or months before the elections rather than after. Then there’s the EU elections next year so that’s also an excellent opportunity to train journalists on how to better cover the European elections because there’s a lot to say on that, and not only on gender equality actually. It’s something that doesn’t get the attention it should while it impacts everyone’s life in the EU. 

Where do you think journalism is headed when it comes to gender representation? 

In terms of gender equality, I’ve seen newsrooms evolve around the world. The progress is slow, but I’ve seen some initiatives develop to address online abuse of women journalists for example. Some media have asked us what they could do to improve the situation. We had numerous discussions with public broadcasters, some are making a real effort. I’m thinking about France 24, for example, in France, which is doing a good job, and the BBC, too. It’s not perfect, but they’ve set all these targets, and I think we have to welcome this. This was not happening 20 years ago, but it’s happening now.

There is progress. It’s slower in certain parts of the world, of course, and it’s slower when your media is struggling and cannot find the money to pay you — it’s difficult then to put ethics at the top of the agenda. But I think, in terms of policies, there’s a lot that can be done. Media owners have a big role to play there, they can really make a difference. And it’s in their interest. If you have diversified news where everyone sees themselves, people will feel concerned by the stories, like they’re not just a witness, they’re part of the story. So you, as a media owner, will sell more. I’m sorry to use this economic argument, but at the end of the day, yes, money matters.

The new generation of journalists is my hope. They see the world differently. They are more open. They haven’t been raised the same way as the generations before them. They come up with new ideas, and they’re working differently as well. Social media is very important to them. They can multitask. So I am optimistic.

*If you’re curious about the modules included in the training, here’s what Pamela Morinière shared with us:

“There are six modules in this training, one of them being a module exclusively for future trainers on how to become a trainer basically. The first module is about what gender equality is, what intersectionality is, to clarify the terminology and also try to turn journalists into advocates of gender equality just by showing them the reality. Women represent 18% government officials, spokespeople, politicians that appear in the news, while they represent, for example, 30% of national parliaments in the EU. So by just saying this, you can start a very interesting conversation. And then you also need to ask: when they do appear in the news, what do they talk about? Do they necessarily talk about hard news? Or do they talk about women’s issues? And what do men talk about? Why aren’t men asked questions about fertility, about parental leave? It’s also a concern for them.

Then the second module is about newsworthiness. Very often in the news, politics and economics are what’s considered newsworthy. Why not, I don’t know, menopause? Why isn’t it a big issue when you have a very aging population?

The third module is about not falling into stereotypes when talking about women. Then we have a fourth module about how you write about politicians — the terms you use. And the fifth module is about the illustration that you use: what picture, what angle, what caption…”

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