In Nigerian Newspapers, Women Are Seen, Not Heard: Even Influential Women Journalists Stay Away from Coverage of Women's Issues. (Women: International)

Article excerpt

The Punch, the widest circulating daily in Nigeria, did something savvy October 20. On the cover, Stella, the gorgeous wife of President Obasanjo, was stepping out for an occasion with two equally gorgeously dressed women. There was no detail on where they went; no words heard from them. No stories. Just big color pictures. In this edition, women made the cover, back page, and seven other pages, a total of nine out of its 55 pages. Who can resist the face of a beautiful woman? The paper's vendors had a field day. That morning, other papers lost out in the fierce competition for a narrowing market.

A content analysis of mainstream media in Nigeria reveals one dominant orientation: Women are largely seen and not heard. Their faces adorn newspapers. However, on important national and international issues, they fade out. Even when the news is about them, the story only gains real prominence if there is a male authority figure or newsmaker on the scene.

Ask any editor in Lagos, the media center of Nigeria, and he will argue his paper is issue-oriented, keen on serious news, and gender-blind. That would tend to suggest that whatever makes news gets covered, whoever is involved gets heard. But the reality is that it is not quite so. The definition of news, what makes news, real marketable news in Nigeria inevitably excludes a sizeable chunk of the population, especially women. By the 1991 population count, women make up 49.92 percent of the population; that is .8 percent less than the men. But from politics to economy, technology, commerce and industry to crime, very few women's voices are heard in the mainstream media.

At the heart of this practice is tradition. Historically, the local media has been dominated by men, a situation that persists. A recent survey conducted by the Independent Journalism Center (IJC) in Lagos in conjunction with the Panos Institute of Washington and the Center for War, Peace and the News Media of New York established that 80 percent of practicing journalists in Nigeria are male. This circumstance impacts coverage of news. The Lagos-based Media Rights Monitor reports in its January 2001 issue that "domination of the news media by men and the preponderance of male perspective in the reporting of news have also brought about a situation where there is little focus on the participation of women in the political and economic spheres of the country. Women's issues are also not given adequate coverage in the media. Where they are covered, they are treated from the male perspective."

Newsmaking itself also has been gender-biased. That a woman made news in the early years of media development in the country was in itself news. "Man bites dog." "Woman strips in protest against taxes." It had to be that unusual to attract news coverage. And so, in the early 1960's, women resorted to doing shocking things in order to grab the attention of society. In Aba in southeastern Nigeria, it took bands of angry women rioting and chasing the colonial government officials there into hiding before society could listen to their issues. Then they made banner headline news in the conservative national dailies.

But those days are gone; that genre of woman has all but disappeared. In her place has come a new brand of woman, doused, softened by education and modernity. She no longer employs the shocking tools of her forebears to get noticed, but she has not succeeded any better with her modern methods. A woman is still largely eclipsed in the news by the looming image of her male counterpart.

The dominant attitude among Nigerian journalists is that women's issues rarely make marketable news. Controversy is what sells. As most women shy away from controversial issues, they remain out of the orbit of hot news. It is that simple.

But there are occasional sparks. In its October 13 edition, This Day newspaper devoted two-thirds of the back page to a flattering column on Justice Rose Ukeje, the first female chief judge of the Federal High Court and the highest judicial appointment for a female in Nigeria's history. …