Women\’s Ways of Journalism?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Pose open-ended questions, and freely admit information gaps. It’s OK to not always have all the answers or facts.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

3 thoughts on Women\’s Ways of Journalism?

Comments are closed.

  1. I’m not certain that any of the suggestions that you make are particularly “male” or “female”. There are certainly problems with the current journalistic tradition, and yes, those journalistic traditions were generated predominantly by white males, but that doesn’t mean that they are tied to sex in any direct way.

    I suspect that the failings of modern journalism has far more to do with the business of journalism than the sex of journalists. Because media has become a business first, all the concerns of businesses rise above those traditionally attributed to journalism: it’s cheaper to pander than to educate. It’s cheaper to attack than support. It’s cheaper to simply invent than to research.

    To me, the principle advantage of the “citizen media” is its relative freedom from economics. It is precisely this freedom that also makes it so useful for minority voices of all kinds. Previously to reach large numbers of individuals you had to have access to newspaper, radio or television. Now, all you need is access to the Internet. If you are dissatisfied with the current media, you can go ahead and invent your own without having to get permission from anyone.

    I revel in the diversity of opinion that one can find in online media, which stands in stark contrast to the monotone that is displayed by the more traditional mortar and brick establishments. There is no better way to change the old media than by making it compete with the new kind.

    By the way Amy, love your blog. 🙂

  2. Mark wrote:

    “There are certainly problems with the current journalistic tradition, and yes, those journalistic traditions were generated predominantly by white males, but that doesn’t mean that they are tied to sex in any direct way.”

    I can understand that perspective. I’m not saying that all men communicate a certain way and all females communicate a certain way. I’m simply pointing out that there’s a wealth of research which indicates that men and women tend to approach communication differently. In the world of journalism, the more typically male approach to communication has been strongly incorporated into journalistic norms, values, and practices — everything from what qualifies as news to tone to types of quotes and information presented. Personally, given the weight of available research on male/female communication I think it would be remiss to ignore the role that gender-specific communication styles have played in the evolution of journalism.

    “I suspect that the failings of modern journalism has far more to do with the business of journalism than the sex of journalists.”

    Well, business in general also is strongly influenced and predominated by male behavioral and communication styles. So saying it’s just business really only reinforces the gender-bias argument — at least from my perspective.

    “it’s cheaper to pander than to educate. It’s cheaper to attack than support. It’s cheaper to simply invent than to research.”

    Acutally, in my experience that’s not usually true. It’s all a matter of how you approach journalism. Educating, researching, and analysis can be accomplished simply and inexpensively through journalism. Maybe not in-depth all the time, but still significantly most of the time, if you make that your goal and your editor allows that approach. The big challenge is getting journalists and editors to think along those lines and hone those skills.

    I do think the rise of “citizen media” is improving the diversity of available perspectives and approaches to news and other kinds of information. However, so far its effect is very limited simply because the internet is not the main source of news and information for most people. Also, it seems to me that so far the most popular online sources of news and information tend to either reflect or exaggerate the norms and goals of traditional media. it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out over time.

    I love your blog/podcast, Brainwagon, too Mark!

  3. I think this is one of those cases where I agree with virtually everything you say, but am trying to expand the conversation a bit wider to try to make a wider point.

    Immediately after posting my “it’s business, not sex” comment, I saw that the immediate comebacker was likely to be “well, yes, but business is the way it is because of sex too”. Touché But I’ll try to expand with some perspective.

    Nearly twenty years ago when I was an undergraduate, the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) did a study to try to figure out why computer science at the graduate level was largely dominated by men. Frankly, I wondered it too: I think that in the graduate class I was in women were outnumbered by roughly 20 to 1.

    As a personal anecdote, I think that the vast majority of men that I talked to interested in trying to understand what the problem was and to ameliorate it. This was likely due to the rather selfish possibilities of having access to a greater number of women to serve as potential dates than rather true altruism (hey, we were predominantly in our early twenties and single, so sue us) but certainly sexism (even in the form of acknowledging different skills or levels of ability being common between the sexes) was just not on the radar for most of the men I knew (additional background, I attended the University of Oregon, widely acknowledged as a bastion of liberal ideals).

    The ACM identified a number of issues. Primary education often steers young girls away from careers in mathematics and science. Women have insufficient role models and mentors. The rigors of pursuing a PhD are often incompatible with beginning a family.

    All were I suspect true to a greater or lesser extent. But what was also true was that there were many men who were suffering from the same problems. I had a friend who was pursuing his PhD who spent 18 hours a day at the college, and was basically making a choice between spending time with his wife and baby girl and pursuing a career that he hoped would be both financially and emotionally rewarding. It was a tough choice, a concious choice, and one that he wished he could make a different way.

    It is certainly true that women continue to be discriminated against in a number of subtle and overt ways, but often men are victimized to a lesser degree by the same societal mechanisms that ultimately harm women and other minority interests. Traditionally, men’s life expectancy has been lower, men suffer greater instances of stress related illness, heart attacks and the like. As no surprise, women’s rates of these illnesses are climbing as they participate (often involuntarily, due to increasing economic pressure on middle america) more fully in the work force.

    What’s my point? That pursuing a more gentler course for humanity isn’t a male or female issue, it’s a quality of life issue for all of us. We are a better society when both sexes pursue a balanced approach to the choices we make in life, and having women participate more fully in media (and frankly, having men participate more fully) is an excellent way to make these issues rise to the top of the public consciousness. I think that individual voices of all kinds (with all their inherent complexity) are important to hear, far more so than encouraging a particular group or a particular agenda.

    Ultimately, the question has boiled down to “what can I do?” I’ve discovered that there is nothing to keep me from acting as a mentor, from examining my own actions for prejudice, and to just take a moment and see which of my own behaviors seem to be programmed from society against what I know or truly desire. And I try to talk about it in my own online blog and podcasts, slipping it in subtly between barbecuing tips and gadget news, where nobody will be expecting it.

    This is long enough. Thanks for the topic and the ability to add my comments.