In less than a month’s time, Nigeria – the world’s sixth most populous country, whose parliament currently consists of 96% men – will take to the polls in a general election. Last year the UN called on the news media in Nigeria to give equal access to women as political candidates and story protagonists.
This begs some important questions. Who is deciding what is covered in the news? And with elections due in the next 20 months in Nigeria, India and South Africa – collectively home to a fifth of the world’s female population – are news organisations willing and able to amplify women’s voices?
In the third report from the Missing Perspectives of Women series titled “From Outrage and Opportunity”, I answer these questions and explore what can be done to help women take more of a centre-stage in news-making and storytelling in Nigeria, India, South Africa, Kenya, the UK and the US.
In all the countries researched, news operates more as a mirror of society than a megaphone for marginalized voices, which include those of women. Here is why: more news stories are about politics than any other news genres (in Nigeria 40% of all online news stories since the start of the year have been dedicated to politics). News about politics is decided predominantly by men. 4 in 5 of the most senior political editors across the six countries are men. Women constitute 1 in 6 political editors in Nigeria, 1 in 5 in the UK and in India, and 1 in 3 in the US. In Kenyan and Indian regional outlets, the political editors are exclusively men. At best, such a dominant male editorial lens brings gender blindness in terms of content, alongside an exclusionary editorial culture within news organizations. “As a woman in a news leadership position, you feel side-lined in a lot of situations, where you probably should be taking centre stage. I was not given the authority that came with the office a lot of times,” a senior female editor from the global south shared her experience, highlighting the chronic tokenism that exists. She is one of 41 senior news editors and experts from the global south and north, including Nigeria, whose candid views are captured in the report.
Surprisingly, news media often lags behind the representation of women in political structures. For example, in Kenya the proportion of women in ministerial positions is 30% while only 19% of chief editors and no political editors are women. However, this is not the case in Nigeria where only 10% of ministers vs. a slightly higher proportion of 16% of political news editors are women. Nonetheless, even when in power on paper, women in news leadership roles across the global south reported being excluded from top decision-making roles, regarded as not “good at leading”. As one female senior editor asked: “How much can we hear the voices of the women in the room? Are they being given a microphone that’s working, and, more importantly, are they being spoken over?”
Whether female editors in agenda-setting news are marginalised or not, they have all learned their journalistic craft from men, who have traditionally defined what constitutes a story. 84% of all the editors interviewed in the report believe that newsrooms today are still dominated by men.
This skewed lens results in story angles that focus on problems that women face being deemed “non stories” and in marginalizing coverage of women as political candidates, voters or contributors. The latest AKAS GDELT analysis of 900m global online news stories revealed a significant bias towards male voices in news in the first half of 2022. The overall global ratio of men’s to women’s voices stood at 3:1, rising to a worrying 5:1 in Nigeria and 6:1 in India. A similar analysis focusing on the first few weeks of this year conducted in Nigeria has uncovered an even worse ratio of 8:1. These unbalanced ratios are propped up by pro-male social norms with, for example, 72% and 70% of people in India and Nigeria, 53% in South Africa and 48% in Kenya believing that men make better political leaders than women.
With women often locked out of all elements of news in countries like Nigeria and India, one can’t help but be concerned about news media playing an adverse role during general elections, failing to offer fair access to women and issues that affect them. That said, the report highlights numerous practical solutions that news providers can take to represent and include women. For Dorcas Muga, Nation Media Group’s editor of Africa’s first Gender Desk in Kenya, where general elections took place in 2022, the critical first steps are raising awareness within newsrooms of the existing pro-male biases, and sensitising journalists to look for gender angles across all coverage. Ringfencing a platform for female political candidates is another solution, as Muga successfully did ahead of Kenyan elections with a weekly column in the Daily Nation. She was taken aback by how many women inundated her feeds, eager to tell their stories.
Amplifying women’s perspectives before general elections provides a unique opportunity for news outlets, their bottom line and for democracy. The report revealed that in Nigeria men are 25 percentage points ahead of women in consuming news online. If this gap were to be closed by 1 percentage point a year over the next five years by engaging more women, this would lead to an additional $10 million for the Nigerian news industry.
More profoundly, only when women’s voices are truly reflected in the news as voters, experts and news contributors can the process of general elections be called truly democratic.
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