Research shows that women are just as under-represented on the pages of the tabloids as anywhere else, contrary to the claims of the papers themselves, writes Colleen Lowe-Morna of Gender Links.
Colleen Lowe Morna of Gender Links writes:

The scene is the quarterly meeting of the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) in Cape Town in early 2007. The focus is a panel of tabloid editors. A media studies professor has just thrown down the gauntlet, saying in his view tabloids should not even try to masquerade as journalism. He cites the case of a story in one tabloid in which the penis of a rapist is referred to as the “spear of the nation.” Don’t tabloids have any kind of obligation to uphold the basic human rights principles of the Constitution? he asks.   

If that’s the way people speak in the townships, retorts a tabloid editor, why should we censor it? Women readers love tabloids, he adds, and there are far more women sources and stories about women in tabloids than in the mainstream press.

Tabloid help lines, he adds, are flooded with calls from women because they are far more effective at fighting crime and finding lost children than the local police station. Rather than just lambaste tabloids, the editor argues, gender and media analysts need to take note of the social contribution that they make.

The first phase of research inspired by this challenge shows that readers can take this as true if you accept that women constitute only a quarter of the population, have little to say on topics other than health and celebrities, and occupy few positions outside of beauty contestants; home makers and domestic workers; office workers; social workers and students. Oh and of course, are rarely under 20 or over 49 years old. 

In the first phase of a two- part research project South Africa based non-governmental organisation Gender Links monitored tabloid publications in South Africa, Mauritius, and Tanzania to find out just how they fare in comparison with their mainstream counterparts as monitored in the Gender and Media Baseline Study (GMBS) of 2003 and the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) of 2005.

The research shows that while tabloids have more human-interest stories than their mainstream counterparts, and are clearly more accessible, women’s views and voices are just as under-represented in this medium as in the mainstream press. Overall, women constitute just 25% of news sources in tabloids in the three countries monitored, compared to the Southern African regional average of 19% in the GMMP.

Reflecting the black target markets of many tabloids in South Africa, tabloids in this country display a much higher proportion of black sources than the mainstream media. However, the gender gap is still glaring. At 18%, tabloids better represent black women than the mainstream media (7%), but still under-represent this group relative to their strength in the population (45%).

When it comes to who speaks on what, the research again suggests that that despite claims that tabloids give women more voice than the mainstream media, there is little difference between the gender analysis of sources in different topic categories. As with in the GMBS and GMMP, findings show that tabloids under-represent women’s views in all topic categories: especially in sports, politics and economics.
Unlike the mainstream media, in which women had more to say than men only on the topic of gender equality, in tabloids, men’s views predominate even in this category.  The only topic category in which women’s view predominated in tabloids was health, with celebrity news a close second.

As in the case of the mainstream media, tabloids perpetuate gender stereotypes in a number of ways. In findings that mirror those of both the GMBS and GMMP, the only occupational category in which women predominate in tabloids are as beauty contestants; homemakers and domestic workers; office workers; social workers and students.

Men on the other hand predominate in a range of roles, from professional, to non-governmental organisations, to businessperson, labourers and drivers, religious figures and politicians.

A question often asked is whether this is not just the way society is. It is true that the gender division of labour is still heavily apparent in all societies. However, even where women are present, they are not equally reflected.

For example, while women now constitute about 20 percent of all politicians in Southern Africa, they constituted only 8 percent of the politicians who spoke in the GMBS and five percent in the tabloid monitoring. There are virtually no sportswomen portrayed in tabloids. This again is not the reality on the ground

Tabloids often portray women in extremes of either the virtuous virgin or devil incarnate. An article in Le Dimanche (10 June, 2007) speculates on whether Princess Diana was a virgin on the day of her wedding. The article takes it for granted that there was no expectation for Prince Charles to be a virgin on the night of his wedding.

Reporting on the sentencing of Dina Rodrigues, the woman who shocked South Africa by murdering a child fathered by her former boyfriend, the Daily Voice (29-30 June) adds to the words of the judge: “heartless, cowardly and ruthless” its own interpretation: “Pure Evil.” There is a headshot of Rodrigues with her image manipulated to give her bloodshot eyes.

While it is true that Dina Rodrigues committed a ruthless crime, the story is not a court report but a highly personalised attack driven by the stereotype of the “devil woman,” with little mention of the men who actually carried out the murder.

Tabloids often tell stories in photo essays with much punning and playing on headlines. An example is the story in the Sunday World (24 June 2007) entitled “Abreast with the big shots.” It shows Chomee, a prominent South African musician and dancer, standing with visiting American R and B and pop singer Chris Brown. Below the photo is the caption “YUMMY CHUMMY: Our very own Chomee gets Chummy with… Chris Brown…” Chomee is clad in revealing clothing and Chris Brown has his hand wrapped around her back.

Do audiences, especially women, accept what they get in tabloids because that is what they want or because that is all they can get? What do tabloids know about their audiences and how closely do they listen to them? Would this make a difference?

The second phase of the research will draw on the findings of the content analysis to conduct research into how audiences, women and men, respond to tabloids, and seek to answer some of these questions. Watch this space!

* Colleen Lowe Morna in Executive Director of Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on every day news.