By Foong Ling Kong
Journalist Jane Gilmore’s Fixed It project began as a sharp and swift red-line response to a lousy headline in September 2015 on one of Australia’s major news sites about a man who murdered his ex-girlfriend. After that first fix, which was posted on social media, Gilmore was making daily fixes on her website, garnering quite a following on Twitter and Instagram, showing the appalling but unsurprising truth of how women’s lives and deaths are reported in the Australian media.
As Gilmore writes in Fixed It, in all the hundreds of headlines she had fixed, only one editor has ever been in touch to ask how they could write stories about women differently. While we can perhaps sympathise with the grind to feed the beast that is the 24-hour news cycle in the face of ever-dwindling resources, there are ways that reporting can be done better. And if enough readers pay attention and intervene, change can happen.
Words matter, and whether conscious or unconscious, word choices reflect realities and shape readers’ perceptions of the world around them. Foolish headlines may be foolish, but have enough of them and they can shape the way a society responds to victims, allow perpetrators to justify their actions – especially the sense that they are wronged – and affect the legal and community solutions that can be offered. That this month, two separate groups of Melbourne students from a boys’ college from years 10 to 12 can still think it acceptable to chant sexist and vulgar words in public after all that has been written about #MeToo and misogyny shows how entrenched the problem is.
Fixed It pulls out from the headlines to show how and why the reporting of women’s lives is so negative, and the persistent structural issues that make the problem an enduring one. As long as the newsroom remains a male-dominated site, biases will persist and affect the way in which crimes such as rape, domestic violence, sexual abuse and men’s violence against other men is covered.
Drawing on commendable research and case studies, Gilmore’s chapters on gender equality and violence and the justice system are as rage-inducing as they are despairing. Strategies used to keep women and other minority groups out of the power structures that govern society and the political economy run so deep that the stereotypes can seem impossible to surmount. Nor are sport and pop culture immune from angles on beauty myths, ageism and racism and so on that need fixing; remember the reaction earlier this year to a photo of AFL player Tayla Harris’s goal?
A 2019 Women for Media Report found:
The media reality is that women are not experts, not sources. As those sources, we are missing from news stories and from feature stories, we are missing from photos both as photographers and as subjects; and we are missing in that very influential place in the Australian media landscape, our voices are missing from opinion pieces and columns.
Across our data set from all of the sites analysed, the average representation of female sources was just over one-third. Only the stories on one news site quoted more women than men; and that was BuzzFeed Australia. Of the rest, the next best was 9News with women representing 45 per cent of the sources quoted. At the other end sits the Australian Financial Review, where women made up only 14 per cent of sources.
Finally, if you read an opinion piece from the two national publications, The Australian and the Financial Review, know that they will nearly always be written by men.
Women make up 50.7 per cent of the population, by the way.
In an ideal world we would not need reminding that the way women are represented matters in every sphere of our lives – in the classroom, the office, the boardroom and in governance – and not just for one day or one week, but that the vigilance be ongoing. Making change is not the task of one individual, but a collective one.
As Gilmore acknowledges, ‘The changes we’ve seen to women’s legal and social status is the result of a thousand small steps by feminists, scholars, and activists.’ And while there can sometimes be a sense that some institutions can seem too large to fail, more than 140 advertisers to broadcaster Alan Jones’s 2GB program pulled or had their ads placed with other time slots since Jones suggested that Scott Morrison ‘shove a sock down’ New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s throat and that she be ‘backhanded’.
As of 27 October this year, Destroy the Joint has counted 45 dead women who have been killed by deadly acts of violence; in 2018, they recorded 71 deaths. In September 2019, over a period of seven days, five women – Helena Broadbent, Trudy Dreyer, Selma Adem Ibrahim, Kim Chau and Mhelody Bruno – were killed.
We have a lot more work to do. Books like Fixed It remind us that change is possible – and why we need to keep going.
Foong Ling Kong is Chair of the Feminist Writers Festival board. She is a Melbourne editor and a former publisher of books.