hold the media accountable
speakers tell people to speak out and change media coverage of women and violence
E. J. Graff (left) listens during Mark Anthony Neal's presentation at the 22nd Annual Symposium on Sept. 11.
(Sept. 12, 2007) Getting the media to do a better job writing about women and telling the accurate story of violence against women and girls will take everyone demanding change, according to the discussion at the Chicago Foundation for Women 22nd Annual Symposium.
“The media look at violence against women as individual crimes stories--so we all read these stories and see violence as something that is happening to someone else--it's their problem, not mine," said Susy Schultz, the Foundation's director of advocacy and communications. "But if you look at violence for what it is--a public health epidemic--you understand that it touches all of us and our actions, just like in any other epidemic, can either increase or decrease the transmission. We have to get the media to understand."
“Violence in Language, Art and Culture: Images to Die For?” was opened with a brief overview of what the Foundation found during its year-long effort to go statewide and ask people “What Will It Take?” to make Illinois the safest state for all women and girls. And a key finding, Schultz said, was that it will take changing the way the media portray violence against women and girls.
Schultz outlined the two action steps out of 100 that pertain to the media in the Foundation's "A Call to Action, Part 1" report. Then, it was up to panel moderator Lisa Yun Lee, director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, to frame and jumpstart the nearly two hours of discussion about ways to demand change from the media and the risks to women if those efforts don’t succeed.
Yunuen Rodriguez speaks during the Sept. 11 symposium.
Lee gave a history and then turned to the panelists: E.J. Graff, senior researcher at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University in Boston; Mark Anthony Neal, professor of Black Popular Culture in the department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and Yunuen Rodriguez, a student activist in Chicago and Radio Arte talk show host.
“The media are not held accountable for its actions,” Rodriguez said, explaining that her organization, FUFA (Females United for Action, a group of girls dedicated to eradicating violence against women), want media to create more positive images of women and girls, to educate the public about women’s issues and be held accountable for the images it shows. FUFA had great success convincing a Latino radio station in Chicago to drop an advertising campaign that sexualized women
The young women circulated petitions and peppered the station’s general manager with emails to the point that he threatened to seek an injunction against the group. But the young women persisted. Six months after their campaign began, the station pulled the ads. They are negotiating now for a time to go on the air and discuss their efforts to combat violence against women.
Neal pointed to best-selling R&B star R. Kelly as a case in point. Kelly, who has a history of settling cases brought by women who charge he seduced them when they were underage, was indicted five years ago on more than 20 counts of child pornography stemming from a video that allegedly shows him having sex with an underage girl.
His attorneys have managed to delay the trial so long that, if the trial starts on Sept. 17 as scheduled, the jury will see an alleged victim who is a “full-grown 22-year-old woman” not a young teen, Neal noted. Others have quipped that pro football quarterback and convicted dog killer Michael Vick should have hired Kelly’s lawyers, Neal said.
Meanwhile, Kelly has collected recording industry awards, including Black Entertainment Television’s Best Male R&B Artist in 2003. “His fans and supporters are, in essence, enablers of his proclivities against young girls,” Neal said, adding, “How has that emboldened other men to believe they can get away with it too?”
Moderator Lisa Yun Lee at the Sept. 11 symposium.
While men’s sexual exploits are being glorified, “women’s lives and real concerns are misrepresented or missing from the media,” Graff said. “That absence encourages violence against women.”
Graff, author of Getting Even: Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men—and What to Do About It, linked women’s economic insecurity with their physical vulnerability. The media, Graff said, portray women’s economic problems as personal—women make less than men because they want to stay home with their babies, not because they are segregated into lower-paying jobs with less prestige—while men’s economic problems are seen as political—good, high-paying manufacturing jobs are disappearing.
That, she said, also encourages violence against women “because women are seen as victims.”
In response to audience questions, the panelists pondered the power of individual words and whether eradicating those words would also eradicate the negative implications of those words.
Rodriguez, who said she considers herself a “womanist,” not a feminist, said “people, time and money can change [anything].” She pointed to the pink triangle, which was a badge of dishonor bestowed upon male homosexuals in Nazi Germany and noted the symbol has been reclaimed by the gay community. It now connotes a safe zone for gays and lesbians.
Neither Graff nor Neal, however, expressed confidence that getting rid of words would also get rid of the negative connotations behind them.
Graff noted the enormity of the job at hand. She has “given up on figuring out the most important thing to do,” she said. “Each of us has to figure out which inch we’re going to take on [and then] be confident you’re working on your inch, too.”
A full transcript of the symposium will be available online in another week. The full "A Call to Action, Part 1" report is available online now.
For more information, contact Susy Schultz, director of advocacy and communications, at email@example.com or (312) 577-2825, cell (630) 747-6144. Or contact Laura Fletcher, communications associate, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 577-2824.