From Heidi of Hollywood to Lenora Bobbitt, from the raped daughters of Bosnia to the starving mothers of Somalia—the most frequent role for women in the mainstream news are sadly familiar.
"Women are more likely to get into the mainstream media as the victim of crime than in any other role," Helen Benedict, author of Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, told the audience at a Nov. 10 panel discussion organized by the Women's Desk at FAIR.
The panel posed the question: "Whose Story Is It Anyway? How the Media Tell Women's Stories." In commercial media fixated on sales, the three big sellers are sex, power and death. Women find themselves squeezed into stories that the press associates with these categories; the alternative, often, is to be written out of the story altogether. Given that scenario, FAIR's panelists discussed: Is any coverage at all necessarily better than no coverage?
"You couldn't get a story on prostitutes or sex workers on the Lower East Side, or anywhere, until the Joel Rifkin murders," said panelist Lisa Napoli, coordinator of the Lower East Side Women's Center in New York. Napoli's center was besieged by the press after it was discovered that 18 women, whose murders had virtually been ignored, had apparently been killed by a single serial killer, who found some of his victims in the center's neighborhood.
"Violence devastates our lives, but it only gets attention when we're dead," she said.
The problem of lack of access coupled with blatant bias is particularly pronounced in international coverage. "Muslim women don't have enough identity to have countries," said Nahib Toubia,the author of Female Genital Mutilation: A Global Call to Action. "They're just referred to in the media as 'Muslim."
That sort of coverage, said Toubia, has a lot to do with what she called the selling of the American Dream. "People in the U.S. have to have someone to look down on," said Toubia, and for the underprivileged in the U.S., who better than people in the Third World.
"For all these years, no one has wanted to talk about African cultures, the positives, the negatives, the history. Then the first time you get mass attention particularly to women, it's to something like female genital mutilation," said Toubia. A Sudanese surgeon and a long-time anti-mutilation organizer, Toubia published her book specifically to give the Western press factual information on female mutilation and to profile African women "not as victims but as activists," she said.
When they arrive in the U.S., Third World women also get inadequate press attention, unless they arrive in a dramatic way or come from a country with a high political profile. Earlier this summer, the Golden Venture, a ship carrying 300 immigrants from China, ran aground off the coast of New York City. "Suddenly the media discovered Chinese immigrants," said Joanne Lum of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, another panelist.
In the wake of the Golden Venture, Lum's desk was piled high with messages from the media. "Mostly they said: wants illegal alien. If you could find a woman, they particularly liked that," Lum remarked.
What the press didn't want was serious discussion of the living and working conditions of immigrant laborers. At a time when the press is blaming women for talking too much about what Katie Roiphe calls "victimhood," these stories of women who work in sweatshops have received close to no attention. Involving not physical but economic violence, the experience of striking Chinese workers doesn't make it onto the front page.
The victims that do get attention are the ones the press associates with sex. A lusty model sells more copies of Newsweek promoting a story on "Sexual Correctness" than would a similar shot of a striking garment worker accompanying a report on sweatshop labor. But more doesn't equal better, especially when it comes to sex-crime coverage.
As Helen Benedict, professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, concluded, "Given that a woman in this country is being raped every five minutes, according to the FBI, or every 3.5 minutes, according to another national survey, covering rape is an essential duty for the press."
"Women are too often reported as victims, not because there's too much coverage of sex crime, but because it's covered in the wrong way," said Benedict.
"Instead of looking at victims, the press should be looking at perpetrators; it should be looking at rape—and sexism. And that's what the press is utterly failing to do."