Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women/Desperately Seeking Women Readers: U.S. Newspapers and the Construction of a Female Readership

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Books * Rivers, Caryl (2007). Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, pp. 180.

* Harp, Dustin (2007). Desperately Seeking Women Readers: U.S. Newspapers and the Construction of a Female Readership. Lanhan, MD: Lexington Books, pp. 136.

Last semester while discussing feminist theory, I urged my graduate students to visit the Women's Rights National Historical Park at Seneca Falls, N.Y., a short hour's drive from our university. Most looked at me blankly, a reminder that many of our students know little about women's struggles to achieve equality. My students tell me that their history books didn't include much, and they learn from me that the same is true of news media.

So it is that we can fast forward 160 years since the Women's Right's Convention and that first wave of feminism to our contemporary media environment, and find that women are still stereotyped and symbolically annihilated by the news media; that women still don't hold many managerial positions in news media; and that (small surprise) women read newspapers in smaller numbers than men do.

Dustin Harp and Caryl Rivers examine these and related issues in their respective new books Desperately Seeking Women Readers: U.S. Newspapers and the Construction of a Female Readership and Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women. If you're like me, you'll see a certain irony in juxtaposing these titles. Newspapers are "selling anxiety" and scaring women, yet "desperately seeking" them as readers? Doesn't make much sense. Or does it?

In the Declaration of Sentiments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote, "The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world."

Harp and Rivers provide such facts, and while they don't blame men for news coverage that fails women, they do identify values, ideologies, and practices that perpetuate a misogynistic news culture.

Harp, through several methods, digs into the complexities of why the notion of women's pages has persisted and, indeed, resurfaced in recent years: "A purpose of this book is to illustrate how publishers, editors, and reporters in general audience newspapers have structured (or packaged) content for women and constructed a female audience." Rivers argues in a provocative narrative that news media no longer tell women they can't achieve, but that stories that mock, symbolically annihilate, and demonize women all serve to scare them into believing that "the price of achievement is too high." It is these stories, often in contradiction with scientific findings, she argues, that resonate and diffuse throughout the culture.

A recurring theme in these volumes is the attempt to better understand what "women's news" is. Through a series of interviews with editors and reporters conducted in 2002 (we could hope for some more recent data as well), Harp finds that some news workers essentialize women, with certain topics identified as inherently more female than others (e.g., health, domestic violence, and relationships). Other journalists resist such categorization, suggesting that women are too diverse to neatly categorize and that their interests are varied. In a similar vein, some news workers are uncomfortable with marginalizing "women's news" into special sections while others see such pages as feminist-providing unique spaces for women's voices. …

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