Journalism conference discusses sexism in media

University College Cork was the hub of discussions ranging from the future of print media to the role of feminism in journalism last Saturday.

Journalism conference discusses sexism in media

UCC's historic Aula Maxima was the location for the Journalism and Media Society’s sixth annual conference, and as it has in the past, drew an impressive line-up of industry experts from the worlds of print, broadcast and academia.

As keynote speaker, Dolan O’Hagan, the Irish Examiner’s Executive Editor drew immediate attention to one of the more unique aspects of the day- a conversation on feminism in journalism. “I recognise if we want to be a profession that is as relevant in this society as we aspire it to be, if we want brave writing which shines light in all places, then everyone needs to be a feminist too.”

Arguing that journalism today is facing a RE:DO moment, in which it can, and needs to, restructure, experiment, diversify and optimise, Mr O’Hagan says “I have little doubt that with bravery, endeavour and foresight “legacy” media companies can move to a much healthier stage in their evolution as key members of the wider news eco-system.”

Speaking specifically on the challenge posed by digital media, O’Hagan says,

“We journalists and all those men and women charged with securing the future of journalism in Ireland must embrace and utilise the rapidly evolving delivery devices of the digital age but we must do so with the ultimate goal of protecting, promoting and funding our core and most worthwhile product … engaging, insightful and entertaining journalism which speaks to and listens to ordinary people.”

The first panel of the day, entitled “The Future of Print Media and the role of Local and National Newspapers” was comprised of industry heavyweights Press Ombudsman John Horgan, RTE’s Fran McNulty, Richard Chambers of Newstalk, Damien Mulley and the Evening Echo’s political editor Mary Smithwick.

In ever changing and uncertain times for legacy media, the conversation was naturally dominated by the topic of the internet, and the question of monetising it.

John Horgan spoke of the challenges of legacy papers in attracting younger readers. While he stated more young people than ever are reading news, they are doing so online- and therefore for free.

Mr. Horgan also drew attention to the phenomenon of prioritising content that will be popular rather than that which is important.

"I hate to think that journalism will be dictated by what people want to read, not what they ought to have."

This theme was echoed by the panel who believe that in an environment where people have access to more information than ever, journalists still have a key role as gatekeepers.

While Fran McNulty proposed that there is an issue with the level of appetite for local news in a more globalised world, Mary Smithwick asserted that there will always be a need for local journalists to look out for the needs of local people.

Social Media in practice was visible at the event with the event’s hashtag #UCCJournoConf trending number one in Ireland.

Beginning the second part of the programme, Dr. Finola Doyle-O’Neill of UCC’s Department of History took an academic view on “The Talk Show in Irish Life”. Speaking on the story of Anne Lovett, Dr. Doyle-O’Neill regarded the story as a watershed moment in women’s access to, and representation by Irish media.

She spoke of the power of the radio to bring women’s voices to attention, and allow a female perspective on issues apart from those of housekeeping, family and fashion to which they had previously been resigned.

It was made clear by the following panel’s speakers however that in reality female journalists are often still relegated to covering these spheres. Esther McCarthy referred to the practice of ‘softly nudging’ women journalists to covering “pink topics” over sports, politics or economics. While overt sexism may have become a thing of the past, Colette Browne described a new “latent or lazy sexism”, referring to her own experiences of being vilified online after television appearances on the grounds of her hair or style of dress, something which she believes would never happen to a man.

It was noted too that female bylines in print, and voices on air, are far outweighed by mens’. As Caroline Erskine, chair of Women on Air, and Alison O’Connor described research into this area is damning. While 68% of US journalism and communications graduates in 2010 were women, these statistics do not carry through to the professional world.

Ireland comes second last, next only to Luxembourg in gender equality on air. In print we do not fare better. A quick poll of last Thursday’s broadsheets showed that 145 bylines were male and 38 were female.

While issues of confidence and lack of role models for young female journalists was cited by the panel, it was concluded that while more women may need to “lean in”, the door they do so against, needs to be more open.

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