Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Guest post: “I think it's pretty obvious that women have different ways of telling a story than a man”*

This guest post has been lovingly crafted by Luddite Journo, in further response to Tim Selwyn's remarkable assertions about female journalists and their inferiority. Thanks so much to Luddsy J for this fantastic contribution!

Tim Selwyn at Tumeke is a provocative writer who seems to enjoy the cut and thrust of rhetorical battle. He’s often an enjoyable read, particularly if you agree with his base assumptions.

Some people probably feel the same way about Michael Laws.

But there are times when provocation can fall into a tedious post-modern trap of bigotry-pretending to be irony-or is it serious really-who knows? His post earlier this year about female journalists falls into that category.

In the post Tim makes a series of claims about women journos:
1. 90% of stories lacking the crucial and most obviously necessary data are written by female journalists
2. 85% of stories where there is no attempt in the article to provide an answer or explanation for what has happened are written by female journalists
There is no data to back up either of these claims. They are Tim’s opinion – and seem to be pretending male journalists cover crucial facts completely and explain phenomena they report clearly.

But wait, there’s more:
3. 80% of stories in which the author uses first person (I and Me and My) and never lets up, turning the assignment into a story about themselves are written by female journalists
This shows a poor understanding of media delineations – between news reporters, who in theory should never be using first person pronouns, preferring to believe in the elusive myth of objectivity – and opinion writers, who exist to provoke. Scanning mainstream media for opinion writers, we find men outnumber women by three to one in the New Zealand Herald, and draw two all on Stuff (except oddly this doesn’t list stuff opinion writers Bob Jones, Joe Bennett, John Minto, Richard Long...)

So there are more male opinion writers using first person pronouns. Like Michael Laws’ most recent column:
I've always wanted to be a greenie. And for all the right reasons.

Because I believe that humankind is stuffing this planet, because I subscribe to most of the doomsday theories, and because I love my kids. I instinctively appreciate that the collective endeavour of our species over the past 100 years has not been in the best interests of environmental sustainability.
Six in just four sentences. That’s almost, well, feminine.

This point deserves further consideration. Second-wave feminists were strong critics of the “invisible voice” implicit in “objective” writing. And most criticisms of mainstream media, particularly by the left, focus on how implicit biases often go unrecognised in the pretence of neutrality. Mr Selwyn himself has been known to rail against such faux-objectivity.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel tells a beautiful, illustrative story of watching two feminists arguing.

A Black feminist asked a white feminist what she saw when she looked in the mirror, and the white woman replied that she saw a woman.

The Black woman explained that was why Black feminists needed political analysis of their own – because for many white women, their “race” is invisible to them.

Michael Kimmel groaned so loudly, he was asked to explain himself – and had to tell a room of feminist women that he understood the world a little differently. He said:
When I look in the mirror, I see a human being. I'm universally generalizable. As a middle-class white man, I have no class, no race, and no gender. I'm the generic person.
One of the problems with Tim’s analysis of writing “styles” associated with gender is that he is essentially remarking on people placing themselves in the text. Acknowledging their own position as the place they start from, which is much more necessary when you are trying to address an imbalance than when you don’t need to, though self-aware men like Michael Kimmel show how it can be done well.

To Tim’s final point, again unsubstantiated by research:
4. 70% of stories in which the author fails to put whatever has happened, or whatever things they are talking about into any meaningful context or perspective are written by female journalists
Sadly, news writing is immediate, superficial, and lacking in history or context. It is only “feature” writing in which journalists are allowed the opportunity of exploring issues in depth. The rest of the time, they are taught to write fact-rich concise paragraphs which hook readers in with a sexy intro, develop that, and put such history as they are allowed at the end. Hardly a recipe for meaningful context.

The Journalist Training Organization 2006 survey of 1216 New Zealand journalists showed:
  • 55% of female journalist are less than 40; 83% of male journalists are over 30
  • 36% of female journalists have worked in journalism for less than 5 years compared with 20% of male journalists
  • 7% of female journalists have worked in journalism for more than 30 years compared with 22% of male journalists
  • 22% of female journalists earn less than $30,000 compared with 12% of male journalists
  • 14% of female journalists earn more than $70,000 compared with 36% of male journalists
So women journalists are younger, less experienced and much more poorly paid. Some evidence for this discussion of women and journalism – at last.

Not only do Tim’s comments lack evidential base, but they ignore real differences in journalism for women and men.

It’s a pity he wasn’t able to rise above being a “human being” in this case.

A pakeha bogan female journalist with no illusions of her own objectivity, and no desire to write mainstream news the way we are supposed to.

Luddite Journo

*with delicious irony, the personal pronoun title is a quote from Tim’s original blog.


Lucy said...

I kind of dig the unintentional illumination the title quote provides, in that it contrasts "women" - you know, the Borg-hivemind of all female humans - with "a man", a particular individual. It's...telling.

(Okay, it's probably just bad grammar, but given the other sweeping generalisations, I feel free to read more into it.)

Anna said...

It's kind of daft that using the first person (ie admitting you're the author) is thought to compromise your writing, but pretending to be omniscient is objective.

'Bigotry pretending to be irony' is a fantastic phrase. In this case, I think there's a bit of attention-seeking thrown in - I don't know why else you'd bother writing something you know is both baseless and likely to offend.