Currently, I’m involved in an interesting discussion on the members-only list of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). I started this thread after reading a though-provoking Los Angeles Times column by linguist Deborah Tannen.
I’ve long thought that traditional journalism primarily reflects a predominantly male approach to interaction and communication. So I’m wondering, what might journalism look like if it was more evenly tempered with female communication style?…
This morning I posted the following “thinking out loud” message to the SEJ list to explore this issue. However, I thought it might also interest my other journalism and media colleagues, so I’m reposting it here. (NOTE: The SEJ discussion list is a closed and private forum, so I will not share other contributions to that discussion thread unless their authors specifically give me permission to do so.)
Here’s what I wrote:
I know the concept of a male vs. female approach to any journalism, including environmental journalism, is a difficult and alien concept to many media professionals. Let me explain a bit more what this could mean. Please understand that I’m thinking out loud here, and I’m asking for input and discussion to help round out these ideas.
The linguist Deborah Tannen and other researchers have observed that in most interactions and communications, men generally focus on heirarchy, opposition, and challenge. (Not every man all the time, but in general.) In contrast, women’s interactions and communications generally focus on connection, exploration, and collaboration. (That’s a vast oversimplification, but read Deborah Tannen’s work if you want a subtler understanding.)
I’m not saying that traditional journalism reflects a solely male approach. Like the people who practice journalism, traditional journalism reflects both male and female aspects (communication styles). For instance, the reason why story-style or anecdotal ledes are so popular and effective is that they foster connection and empathy between the audience and the topic a stereotypically female approach to communication. They “make it real” by mimicking human experience.
That said, the male communication style appears to predominate in traditional journalism. (My observation, and I’d like to hear other opinions.)
I’m also not saying that female reporters’ work is (or should be) very different from that of their male colleagues. Nor do I think male or female reporters should ever be advanced or hindered based on gender assumptions or prejudices.
Here’s what am saying…
DEFINING WHAT’S NEWS
First of all, the male communication style appears (at least to me) to play a strong role in what gets defined as “news” in traditional journalism.
When the focus is on heirarchy, difference becomes more imporant than commonality. Thus, specific events (news dates), official status (assumptions of relevance or credibility), and statistics and documents (hard evidence) generally serve as the “news hook.” Without these elements, it’s harder to call a story “news,” which means it’s harder to get that story published.
Hard news hook requirements are good in that they aids newsroom decisionmaking, where time is critical. However, I think they’re also harmful in that they usually relegate stories that don’t have a traditional news hook to lesser status. We’ve all seen “creeping stories” on the envt. beat where the big deal is the diffused impact, complex interrelations, or the accumulation of gradual changes. But unless there’s a solid news hook (sewer overflow, new report, scientific test results, court case, etc.) , it’s hard to convince editors to run the story.
IMPLICATIONS OF TONE AND STRUCTURE
Also, men generally expect and enjoy an argument, a battle of words. To men, this is generally the most natural and best form of analysis and discovery. Applied to traditional journalism, this communication style has led to the practices of universal skepticism, requiring various forms of proof as “ammunition” against anticipated attempts to undermine the reporter’s logic and skills, and highlighting criticism (rather than diversity and consensus, a subtle distinction).
Also, there is the reliance on the slippery concept of “objectivity” to imply, “It’s not just my interpretation, it’s the facts.” To me, as often as not paens to objectivity reflect more an attempt to adopt a defensive posture and tone of impeachability, rather than true honesty and humility. After all, there’s *always* another way to look at any issue. Every work of journalism involves making assumptions and being selective with inquiry and information.
WHAT COULD MORE FEMININE JOURNALISM LOOK LIKE?
Journalism in which a female communication style predominates might have these characteristics:
- Broadening of the “news hook” concept to include important ideas or questions, so that the human or cumulative impact plays a larger role in editorial decisions and resource allocation.
- Changes to the reporting process. We might start a reporting effort by first interviewing people directly affected by an issue. Then we could use that context as a basis to approach and question officialdom (rather than the more common practice of first approaching and quoting official sources, and then moving on to affected individuals only as time and space permit.)
- Focus on opportunities to clarify connections rather than shooting holes. This does not mean abandoning skepticism, but rather tempering it with a sense and tone of exploration and consensus. For instance, quotes from diverse sources might be selected to highlight commonalities more than differences, to avoid creating an artificially polarized narrative.
- Avoid destructive analysis for its own sake. Always keep the main point/impact of the story in mind, and don’t dilute it with unnecessary challenges. Weigh the overall significance of your story against the conventional newsworthiness of each bit of information you gather.
- Pose open-ended questions, and freely admit information gaps. It’s OK to not always have all the answers or facts.
- Acknowledge your own perspective. Don’t perpetuate the fallacy that the reporter doesn’t exist. Also acknowledge how your perspective evolved in response to what you encountered during the reporting process. I’m not saying ever news story should be first-person navel gazing, but simply more honest. If you are being truly objective, you must admit that you exist, and that you made choices that shaped the story you are presenting.
- Don’t discount unofficial or non-expert views. Sometimes average people offer prescient insights regarding causes, effects, connections, and likely or possible outcomes. They also can ask incredibly useful questions. Don’t omit or dilute these gems just because they didn’t come from a bureaucrat or PhD.
Those are just a few ideas.