Five feminist tips for dealing with the media

This wall in Guelph, Ontario gets it. Photo by Flickr user Jay Morrison.

This wall in Guelph, Ontario gets it. Photo by Flickr user Jay Morrison.

As a feminist professor of media studies, I want to see feminist issues covered in the news. But as a former journalist, I know that getting any issue covered is a challenging endeavour, one that demands a confluence of skillful issue-framing, smart networking, and good – or lucky – timing. Getting an issue covered – and covered fairly – is even more challenging when it is a feminist one. Challenging, but not impossible. My research on feminism in the news, along with the research of others, has revealed not only common pitfalls for feminists in the media, but smart ways to avoid them. Here are five tips to get your feminist issue airtime and print space.

1. Fight, but fight fair

The rumours are true: the media loves conflict. Use this to your advantage. The more conflict is in a story, the more likely the story is to get in the news. And if the conflict is between women, the story has an even better shot at coverage. Too often though, female conflict is the mud-wrestling pit of the six-o’clock news: girl-on-girl stories may be newsworthy, but they can hurt the feminist movement, seemingly confirming stereotypes that women just can’t get along. In stories that pit feminists against anti-feminists, no women win; everyone looks bad, and “bad” usually means “radical,” regardless of the message.

When radical feminists and other feminists conflict, the media often implies that feminists’ “radical” sisters’ are out of touch with what most women want. To the news media, most feminists are radical: it has been deeply worrying to learn through my research that moderate beliefs, like demanding equal pay for equal work, are often labeled extremist. Don’t ignore feminists’ differences, but do consider the real problem: are “radical” feminists actually giving the F-word a bad name, or is anyone who challenges the status quo marginalized?

So be careful how you present conflict. While conflict may be inevitable in politics and inherent to news coverage, don’t live up to the stereotypes that the media wants you to perpetuate. Show that women can and do get along, and clearly assert that where there is conflict, the story isn’t a catfight, but significant differences in political ideology.

2. Go local

The local news media probably wants to cover your event more than the national media does. News of feminist protests, sit-ins, and demonstrations once made national headlines regularly, but in 2008, for example, these stories accounted for less than 2 per cent of national coverage on feminism. And even then, most stories were pop-culture related, such as “Is Sex and the City a feminist programme?” or, “Can feminists bake good cupcakes?” Befriend local reporters: if you can prove that you’re a reliable, easily accessible source, they’ll come to you again and again for information.

3. The power of a press release

All media, no matter its size or location, like clear cut-stories. So if you know your angle, such as rising domestic violence rates or a political march, and if you spoon-feed the press evidence of it, such as good photos or quotes, journalists will want to use your story. In a radically changing news environment, reporters are busier than ever. Many are required to file several stories per day – if you can hand reporters even one of those stories, perhaps one you have written yourself in the form of a press release, chances are good that they will be tempted to use most – or all – of it.

To write a press release, start with a catchy headline that accurately reflects the story’s subject matter, and then lead with the most important bit of information. Keep it simple. Just list the five Ws: the who, what where, when, why, and how of a story. Be sure to include your contact information, and maybe a quote or two from your feminist group. And then send it off to that local reporter you befriended.

4. Correct media perceptions with, well, corrections

My research regularly uncovers articles that accuse feminism of causing various social ills, including female criminality, male emasculation, female alcoholism, family breakdown, and – I swear this is true, because I couldn’t make it up – female baldness.  Reports of feminism’s responsibility are all the more dubious given that the media has also consistently claimed that feminism has been dead since the 1970s. Researchers, in addition to myself, have found evidence that stories of feminism’s demise have been told since the First Wave movement began. Perhaps, like the Terminator, feminism just keeps coming back.

Now, media coverage of feminism shows suspiciously little sign of a collective movement. Current news stories tend to focus on the individual and her personal beliefs about gender issues. So while you may do your own part for the movement, present your feminist activities as part of a larger group effort. Talk about various feminist web-sites, blogs, discussion groups, and meetings to stress that feminism is changing its mode of organization – not dying.

Whenever you come across biased or incorrect stories about feminism, write a letter to the editor demanding to know where their statistics come from – often, the figures only come from anecdotal, rather than hard, evidence. And keep using those social networking sites to critique anti-feminist articles and the “logic” behind them.

5. Dust off that pantsuit

When you are interviewed, expect the reporter to comment on your appearance. Commentary like this is irrelevant and inappropriate, but it’s also likely, especially if you either defy traditional gender conventions (such as not wearing a bra, make-up, or feminine clothing) or are traditionally attractive. To get around these dual – and paradoxical – obstacles, either ask the journalist not to describe your appearance, maybe even making it a condition of the interview, or ask to conduct the interview over the phone. Even then, the journalist may comment on your voice, describing it as shrill, soft, or harsh, so an emailed interview is another good option. Many feminists are rightly proud of their appearance, whether it’s conformist or rebellious. Appearance shouldn’t dictate the direction or tone of a story, though. Consider whether the story is about what you look like, or if it is about what you are saying. If it’s about the latter, then allowing the media to use your appearance to either endorse or belittle your message isn’t distracts from your message and detracts from your overall goal.

Giving feminism the last word

Above all, remember that the news media often reflects, rather than contests, the political reality that it reports on. Since our political reality is currently a capitalist, patriarchal one, understand that the journalists you engage with may hold a set of assumptions and priorities that are at odds with feminism’s.  As the actress Ellen Page recently said: “You know you’re working in a patriarchal society when the word feminist has a weird connotation.”

Dr. Kaitlynn Mendes is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at De Montfort University, UK. Her new book, Feminism in the News, explores the ways the women’s movement, its members and their goals were reported on in British and American newspapers from 1968-2008. She can be contacted at kmendes@dmu.ac.uk.