Friday, March 30, 2007

Ellen Goodman in the WAM 2007 Conference

WAM stands for the Women, Action And Media conference and Ellen Goodman stands for Ellen Goodman, a syndicated columnist who has forty years of columns in the Boston Globe under her belt. She spoke tonight on women and journalism at the opening event of this year's conference, and I made diligent notes all through her speech because I was there on a Press Pass. On a Press Pass! Me!

The problem is that I can't decipher my notes, after all. For instance, what is the stick figure doing going up and down a painter's ladder in my notes? And why the large question mark with little birds flying through it carrying ribbons with hearts in them? It must stand for a question I had.

I guess I must write this post on the basis of my memory, mostly. Goodman was witty and interesting on the topic of her early start in journalism and on that dark era when women's issues were on the women's page "back there" in the paper, when most women were "researchers" and men were the journalists and when all this was quite legal, too. The good old times, for the wingnuts among us.

She then made a very interesting argument about the old feminist slogan: Personal is Political, in the context of media coverage. She argued that the recent focus on the adultery and health problems of politicians as well as the whole family values debate might be at least partially seen as what happens when the press takes this slogan seriously without actually understanding what it means. Or so I understood her, in any case.

From my corner slightly different explanations for the current focus on politicians' private lives look more likely. News these days must make a profit, and if the way to make a profit is by talking about missing white women, shark attacks or the adultery of a politician, then that is what the news will focus on. Thirty years ago the news departments were not expected to produce a profit on their own and this gave them more freedom to stay on "real" news. When one adds to this the rise of the Christian right with its very specific interpretation of family values, what we get is not "Personal is Political" as much as "Personal is Politically and Economically Profitable."

Nevertheless, I heartily agree with Goodman when she described today's political commentary as oversimplifying and too personalized. As she pointed out, most political talk shows pit two camps against each other and nobody is supposed to talk about the uncertainties and gray areas and the ambivalence. It's infotainment, all the way.

And infotainment in increasingly niche markets. Goodman argued that news for women focus on relationships and health whereas news for men are the traditional "hard news", framed in the form of stories about conflict (for international politics) or oneupmanship (for stories about electoral politics). Neither of these framings applies to the majority of women, and that might be one reason why women are in general less informed about the "hard news" than men. She suggested that women might want to know how the news affect other events and their own lives. A good idea, I would think.

At that point I started thinking up alternative frames for discussing political topics. Cleaning the kitchen is an old and venerable alternative frame, but I'm sure we could come up with many others which don't rely on war and baseball games. Fairy tales, for example.

It's always important to put gender gaps into a proper perspective. For example, Goodman noted that less than a quarter of women identify as "hard news" junkies. Now that is worrisome, perhaps, but not terribly, considering that she told us that only a third of men identify in that way. Yes, there are differences between the news consumption of the average man and the average woman but the differences are not gigantic.

The task of the future is to make sure that all adult citizens are adequately informed about how our shared concerns are going (another way to frame politics), and that includes making sure that women get the information they need. According to Goodman there is no shortcut to presenting the news in a way which is genuinely interesting to both women and men.