Women (in & of) The Media

For the last two days I’ve been attending #wamnairobi, a series of talks and meet ups organised by Women, Action and the Media (WAM!). The organization connects and supports media makers, activists, academics and funders working to advance women’s media participation, ownership and representation. Visit their site here The talks were part of a series of WAM events happening in New York, Vancouver, and elsewhere.

On the first night, one of the panelists was my former lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Karen Rothmyer. She was among my favourite lecturers back when I was studying Print Journalism because her classes were interactive and the weekly assignments were both fun and challenging. It really improved my writing. Mind you it was a business writing class, an area I wasn’t very interested in pursuing after uni. To this day is still remember her catch phrase “How many? How much?” when I have the (mis)fortune of writing a story with figures and sums.

See, that was one of the issues she raised, the lack of interest in certain areas of news reporting, ‘beats’ as it were. In this particular case she mentioned Politics, Crime and Investigative Journalism. But from other discussions we’ve had in the past, that area is also lacking. She spoke of the lack of female journalists covering these areas as a major cause of fewer positive stories about women in those very spheres. If they are not there to pitch ideas or in a position to push for them, then who will? That then raises two questions, ‘why?’ and ‘then what?’

Although the issue of gender inequality is rampant in our society, journalism is an area that should not suffer the same because the onus is on us. We choose what careers to pursue and the only rejection we could face in any given field is if we fail interviews. Otherwise the sky is limit. So why don’t we pursue these beats? No one is stopping us! In fact there are always looking for women to fill these posts. I can personally tell you that when my classmates and I were looking for internships we were inundated by job offers as business reporters as well as a warm welcome as interns into the business and financial reporting sections.

Let me be clear, there are women who are doing exceptionally well in these areas TerryAnne Chebet, Evelyn Wambui, Munira Muhameed and the likes are reporting on Business, Politics, Crime and conducting hard hitting Investigative Journalism pieces. The issue is, why are so few of us not doing the same? And I don’t exclude myself from the list of absconders.

One thing perhaps would be a lack of interest. I am the first to admit that I don’t have a head for maths, strongly dislike politics, too chicken to report on crime and have no patience for in-depth investigative reporting. That’s my truth. Perhaps its a failing on my part not to, at the very least, get over my fear for crime reporting and train myself to be patient enough to carry out investigative pieces! My strength has always been in arts and entertainment as well as feature writing. I enjoy writing stories about people, that’s what informs my creative works as well.

That said, perhaps faced with this new information I ought to consider my sense of duty towards the Fourth Estate. I’m charged with the responsibility to inform, educate, perform a watchdog role, criticize, praise, among other things. But most of all it is my duty to give a voice to the voiceless,to champion their cause. Truthfully, I don’t feel any ‘physical’ pressure to change course and begin to report on these beats.

Sadly, I also lack some very specific qualities that ought to come with those territories. But I cannot afford to ignore this obvious gap in reporting. So what I can do is incorporate these areas in what I do, for instance since I write UP Magazine‘s calendar I can seek out events that are pro-women issues or support their cause in some way. Perhaps this will be my contribution to the fight to highlight issues that affect women. And when we are brainstorming on subsequent issues I will do my best to pitch and support stories that focus on women. Hell, its about time!

However yet another interesting point raised, and later reiterated by Angela Wachuka of Kwani? Trust, is the issue of a ‘poor woe’ portrayal of women. Women and children are often the faces of disaster, death and destruction. The cliched portrayal of Africa as the ‘begging bowl’ of the world is often that of an emaciated child barely cradled within the arms of an equally emaciated mother, bleak eyes starring into the distance, a swarm of flies buzzing around.

WOMEN ARE NOT VICTIMS!!!!

Ok, we are but surely not all of the time? As Angela put it, there is an over NGO-ized depiction of ‘the girl child’. Various programs and initiatives are created to ‘save’ her. Again, rightly so, however if we continue to condone this weak-willed, barely-able-to-stand-on-her-own-two-feet, image of a woman, then that is all ‘she’ will be. The eternal damsel in distress! Female media practitioners need to be sensitive to the fact that they have a real opportunity to shape society’s perception of women.

Women are often the victims of heinous acts, but they are victors too. How many have heard of the old ladies in Kibera who have taken up self defense classes in order to protect themselves against sexual violence? How about the 125/100 project by Kuweni Serious that teaches young girls science and technology? What of the recently published book ‘Life Journeys’ that profiles 70 exceptional women from various professional fields? Lets use our positions to push stronger and more positive female agendas.

The final night of talk, laughs and samosas brought up a touchy topic: the issue of newsroom patriarchy. Its a man’s world even in the newsroom. One of the panelists Jane (her surname escapes me, my apologies) from non-profit media organisation African Woman and Child talked about the frustrations she faced when she was an editor in a local paper. She remembers being the only lady in a sea of men. She felt scrutinized over what she wore and even how she walked! One interesting thing she brought up was the fact that even after a long day at the office (2am, 4am) the boys often said to each other, “hey lets go and have a drink”. They had their own club where members could relax, unwind, bond, perhaps even mentor each other.

Not so for the ladies, it would be awkward to go off for drinks at 2am, 4am and quite honestly any relations after work can often be misinterpreted regardless of the hour! I must say as a young journalist and the only female working in a small media organization, I too feel a little of the same. Granted I am fortunate enough not to have endured sexually harassment and have a good working relationship with my colleagues. But one of the things that struck me was the issue of a lack of role models and mentors within organizations because there aren’t enough of us to say “hey lets go for some hot chocolate!” Ha!

Well, the point here is that some of the implications of these ‘boys clubs’ can be felt when appointments and recommendations are required from within. Which names are often put forward? Their pals! I’m very lucky to have a close friend who also works within the media with whom I can attend events and discuss work issues with. All right I’m not advocating for favouritism but I can tell you that any sort of ‘club’ situation is emotionally and professionally beneficial. So can we get a few more women in the office please?

An equally touchy subject raised was the use of women as ‘pretty faces’ to decorate media houses without having much say in what can/will be reported on. It was shocking to hear how a prominent media organization has ZERO women in the top editorial spots and that there has NEVER been a female news editor in any of our dailies! Why is that? Is it because so few of us are taking the ‘serious’ beats and hence have not risen through the ranks? Or are there other underlying issues we are not aware of?

My thoughts on the whole ‘pretty face’ issue is that there are various positions within a media organization, the most visible of which is that of the news anchor. Now how she carries herself off the screen is entirely up to her. I remember the days of Anne Ofula on KBC, Kathleen Openda on KTN and other regal and professional ladies who delivered the news, period. This over-sexualization on the news is in poor taste. No doubt today’s anchors are beautiful, eloquent and intelligent women but if they have been explicitly directed to wear tight skirts and deliver the news in a husky-come-hither voice then they should strongly protest! Why aren’t the men then wearing muscle shirts or unbuttoning the top buttons of their shirts?

Well, I’m just starting my journey into the media industry and I know that its not easy to rise through the ranks and become top dog. I realize that one often has to bid their time doing things they don’t enjoy. But I believe one should do them all with respect for the self and the various other groups one represents. All in all, the talks were a good thing, very informative and a great opportunity to network with journalists and activists based in Kenya working for both local and international media agencies. Let’s keep the conversation going shall we?

4 Comments

  1. WOW! Very insightful post, kinda like it has everything i would wanna say about the session which i attended too! Well, well written. Same here, i feel like it doesn’t necessarily mean that women are sidelined just because they do lighter journalistic stories, may be its the society and the culture that has moulded us that way but truth is any woman who is interested in doing business, investigative journalism and what a view sort of stories, they can do it! I mean for one, i never thought i would ever report in Kiswahili, let alone issues of sexual and reproductive health care so will leave you with a quote of what my boss Thomas Jappani from BBC told me: That journalism is not about victimizing a person, its about using the person to communicate to the public.Its the power of the story. Same way as women we should not be victims but use our stories/ experiences/strength and our unique qualities to pass the message out there to the world!

  2. Very well put. It seems when it comes to female reporting not a lot is required of the women. We are also sometimes our worst enemies when we go for the “soft” stories and shy away from the tough beats.

    All in all very well put.

    Forward this article to the Daily Nation my dear..it deserves to be read by many

  3. very good article about an important issue. i agree with you in almost all of the points mentioned. i also agree that there should be women writing about crime, economy and politics, BUT that does not mean that topics like culture, society, etc. are “soft topics” which are only related to women.
    i think there is a serious job to be done in the culture section of kenyan newspapers. Now matter how small they are still dominated by middle aged or older men still gate-keeping and deciding on what is “true art/literature/…”. and even the ones challenging these concepts are mainly men (and i appreciate their commitment). so why don’t you do what you do best (as described above) and go out there and write some serious critiques about whatever crosses your path (books, exhibitions, performances, concerts,…)? with serious critiques i don’t mean phrasing your article like an advert because you want to support the artists. no give them your real and unvarnished opinion – this is the only way art can grow.

  4. Quite an insightful post. I think at this moment where our media is filled with violence and political rhetoric, women journalists taking up issues such as politics can be in a position to bring out (for lack of better term) the other side of the story, the story that exposes our inner feelings and fears and hopes as I think women have more sensitive senses of intuition. My take is that women need not always compete with men – mainly because of men are on the wrong path – but rather create their own space and convince the nation to take the path of hope…

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