"If you want to show that the media is biased against women, you have to prove that articles which appear to be even-handed are actually sexist. But for those of us who want to demonstrate media prejudice against men, life is much easier. We just open the papers and there it is. Nobody bothers to hide it because no one thinks that it matters."
- David Thomas, journalist and former editor of "Punch" magazine.

20 years ago, feminists started attacking the way in which women were portrayed in the media. They pointed out how women only rated a mention as the mother or wife of someone-or-other, mindless housewife, or as the page three girl. These days, a headline containing "woman" or "women" probably means that a woman has done something good, or something bad has happened to her, such as being a victim of crime or discrimination.

If the headline contains the word "man" or "men", expect a story about a man or men having done something bad such as committing a crime, or failing to do something good such as paying child support or doing the housework.

In rare cases where the story is about a man doing something good, the headline usually avoids admitting this - expect to see Woman rescued from blaze rather than Man rescues woman from blaze.

Here are some examples from the Sydney Morning Herald, one of Australia’s most respected dailies.

"Women tough under surgery"
(S.M.H. 21/11/94)

This is an example of a whole story being turned on its head to enable it to be presented as a story about women’s superiority. The story was in fact a report that "men are more than twice as likely as women to die under anaesthetic". This is a story about men dying. A more appropriate headline would have been Men twice as likely to die under the knife.

"Women less well, happier than men"

The story reports a survey in which people were asked whether they had been sick in the preceding two weeks, and also whether they are happy. The headline is interesting; following the previous example, it should have read Proof that Men are Tough. The bit about "happier than men" is drawing a very long bow indeed, in view of reported happiness rates of 95.7 percent for women compared to 96.6 percent for men. This statistic just isn’t headline material.

"Women’s unpaid work valued at $150bn a year"
(S.M.H. 8/12/94)

This story was about a project to place a dollar value on unpaid women’s work, which showed that men only do one third of unpaid housework (that the value of women’s paid work is only 25% of the total was not mentioned). The story also reports the "surprising finding" that men spend as much time on voluntary work as women. In case readers found this too hard to comprehend, there was even a graph which showed this graphically - yes, the boxes representing women and men were indeed the same size. If this was so surprising, why not choose a headline like Men do their share of voluntary work.

"Men’s role about the house still minor"
(S.M.H. 26/7/94)

A study of how men and women use their time found:
Men spend 10.5% of their time on household work and 30% on paid work;
Women spend 25.9% of their time on household work, 12.6% of their time at paid work.

Adding up paid and unpaid work time for men and women, the total contribution is, not surprisingly, about the same. This point was not mentioned. An illustration accompanying the story showed graphically the relative amounts of time spent on different household tasks, but again conveniently omitted paid work.

The report said that "women continue to bear a larger part of the burden of household work" and that men "who share housework and childcare with his partner ... seems to be largely a figment of the imagination". Had the reporter not been so interested in presenting men as villains, he might have also mentioned that men continue to bear the burden of the breadwinner and that women who share the family financing are also "largely a figment of the imagination".

"One in 10 pregnant women bashed"
This shocking headline appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald of 17/10/94.

The story, which starts "Almost one in 10 pregnant women are being bashed at home" goes on to report a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in which 1014 women attending the Royal Women’s Hospital were asked whether they were being abused.

Reference to the original study as published in the medical journal confirms that the reporting was not entirely objective.

The study reports that "5.8% had been abused during pregnancy" and that this abuse ranged from verbal abuse to serious physical attack. "Bashing" was not singled out, but the figure for injuries for which medical attention was sought during pregnancy is 1.8%.

The authors conclude that their findings support previous studies, and that hospitals should be aware that pregnant women may be victims of abuse. Fair enough. However, the most interesting new statistic reported is that in seven percent of cases, the perpetrator was a woman (mother or sister). A more accurate headline would therefore have been One in fifty-five pregnant women bashed. A more newsworthy headline would be Pregnant women bashed by mothers, sisters.

It is totally unacceptable that one in fifty-five pregnant women are bashed, however such a sensationalised report does not further the authors’ aim of having this problem taken seriously. It casts doubt on the credibility of the newspaper and journalist concerned and fuels the "backlash" by men who feel slighted by these exaggerations. A factual report would be more productive.

"Homeless women out in the cold"
(SMH 5/10/95)

This story by Adele Horin reports the problem of homeless women: "There are only 132 crisis beds for women compared with 699 beds for homeless single men". What is not stated is that the vast majority of homeless people are men. According to Sydney City Mission, there are about 5 times more homeless men than women.

In the same article, "Toni" described how "one girl I knew dived into a [clothing] bin - and there was an old bloke already in there". The author is clearly suggesting that men are taking away even these beds from women.

"Level-headed Emma, the littlest hero"
(SMH 13/10/95)

Buried deep in this front page story about the bravery award for a 5 year old girl was the fact that of 81 awards, 80 went to males.

From the way men are usually portrayed in the papers, one could be forgiven for wondering how, in their busy schedule of bashing their wives, murdering babies, and robbing banks, men find time to save people from fires, car wrecks and drownings.

It may not sell as many newspapers, but a headline like Men win 99 percent of bravery awards would be a refreshing change.

Who’s to blame?

All these stories have something important to say, and it is important that gender issues be discussed. But the quality of reporting is in many cases sub-standard. Good journalism means reporting the facts, free of prejudice and interpretation. There is nothing wrong with presenting opinion, provided it is made clear that what we read is opinion, and that a diversity of opinions are reported.

To be fair to journalists, it is not easy to obtain a range of opinions in the case of gender issues. While the women’s lobby has a well-organised and readily accessible publicity machine, there are no corresponding spokesmen to present the male perspective.

One of the first priorities of the women’s movement was to address the negative images and undesirable stereotypes of women in the media. Women understood the importance of having positive role models presented to remind girls that they are equal to boys, as well as removing negative images which reinforce sexist attitudes. For the same reason, it is important that men are not unjustly vilified in the press and that the good things men do are reported, so that boys can aspire to emulate the good things rather than the bad.

As women did 20 years ago, men today need to protest unfair media images of men whenever they occur, and to ensure that well-informed and articulate men are available to provide the media with male interpretations of the facts being reported.

How to Subscribe to Certified Male

Go to table of contents

© Copyright 1995.