Bringing Women's Stories to a Reluctant Mainstream Press: At Women's Feature Service, Journalists Write about Women's Lives. (Women: International)

Article excerpt

In New Delhi, India, is the headquarters of Women s Feature Service, an international news organization directed and staffed by women who produce articles reported from 40 countries for newspapers, magazines and Web sites. By gathering and providing access to these stories about women's lives, Women's Feature Service (WFS) seeks to create "space" for women's voices and experiences in mainstream media, where such topics don't usually receive this same kind of attention. WFS produces and markets women-centric articles. It also lobbies decision-makers in newspapers and magazines about such coverage and trains journalists to be able to recognize stories about women's concerns, to use gender-correct language, and to ask the right questions of appropriate sources.

WFS exists because of the felt need for a gender balance in news coverage and because of dissatisfaction about the ways in which news organizations--in India and elsewhere--treat news coverage about women. Often, the media either ignore important stories altogether, relegate reporting to obscure places in the newspaper, or sensationalize incidents without examining the underlying context or causes. The media tend to focus on women only when it comes to "women's issues," forgetting that women also have an equal stake in so-called "male concerns" such as the budget, economy, globalization, agriculture and conflict resolution.

Our experience shows us that newspaper and magazine space for articles on gender-focused subjects is shrinking as commercial pressures increase and owners focus on the balance sheet. We've analyzed which of our stories sold well between January and September 2001; those that did include articles on women's health, women in conflict (including stories about fundamentalism, domestic violence, and human rights), education, religion, political empowerment and travel. WFS's efforts to speak with senior journalists (both men and women) in newspapers have resulted in serious articles being published by national dailies, state-level newspapers, magazines and some leading Indian-language publications. We've also learned that the ways in which we package our stories, and their relevance to current news, matter. But constant effort with marketing these stories is required.

Certain news stories rarely do well. When the subject is domestic violence, rape, dowry deaths, laws on inheritance, divorce and maintenance, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, lack of access to education and health services, police cruelty, and reproductive rights, it is only sensational "bad news" stories that generate interest. Despite the presence of women journalists on the crime beat, incidents of rape and dowry deaths (shockingly regular occurrences in the Indian subcontinent) are usually reported in a routine manner with the police being the sole source of information. Deadline pressure is one reason, but the other is that editors rarely insist that reporters get more information from other sources. Nor is there often any follow-up to an incident. When it comes to issues that impact most directly on women, news that should cause concern and lead to analytical articles that examine a particular issue in depth is often dismissed in a couple of paragraphs on an inside page.

The responsibility of the media to educate, inform and stimulate debate seems often to be forgotten. Moreover, coverage of women's issues tends to be event-based, not sustained. For instance, little serious writing has been done on proposed laws on domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace even though non-governmental organizations (NGO's) and India's National Commission for Women have been working on them. The interface between NGO's and media needs improvement. These are the kinds of stories that we can and do pursue through the Women's Feature Service.

The other drawback is that there are only a few women writers--and fewer men--who can give a fresh perspective or insights into issues that concern women. …