The role of woman journalists in strengthening democratic processes

by Payal Kumar

— A speech at West Bohemia University, Pilsen, "Many people think that in order to be powerful, a journalist has to reach a huge audience. No, in order to be powerful, a journalist has to reach the audience that can make a difference to an issue. It can be one person."

Czech Republic, on 2 November, 2000 
(Quoted in"Journalism and Citizenship").

The role of woman journalists in strengthening the democratic processes cannot be underestimated. Firstly, the power of the press is noted to be more penetrating than the sword, and has even been known to make or break governments by swaying public opinion, and secondly because more and more women are entering the media profession, be it as reporters, editorial staff or in the more visible electronic media sector. Even if they have not broken the glass ceiling, woman journalists still make a difference. Said a roving reporter from Chennai, "I usually submit three copies that my boss wants, and then one copy that I as a woman hold dear to me."

Democratic processes: a definition
"The success of democracy is largely measured by the public's participation in the process and the responsiveness of the system to popular demands."

— The art of teaching democracy: The theory, by Ruud Veldhuis

A democratic country has more citizen participation in the form of voting for elected representatives, implies more accountability of the government and protects the political and personal rights of citizens, including those in the minority. 

John Patrick, an American social scientist and lecturer at Indiana University in Bloomington (USA) defines democracy as: "A political system institutionalized under the rule of law. There is an autonomous civil society, whose individuals join together voluntarily into groups with self-designated purposes to collaborate with each other through mechanisms of political parties and establish through freely contested elections a system of representative government." 

Citizens are those persons who live in a state permanently and enjoy civil and political rights. In return they are expected to owe allegiance to the State and the State is obliged to protect the citizen's life, liberty, property and political rights. 

A civil society that functions well is perhaps indicative of how well a democracy works. Whether democratic processes work better in homogeneous or heterogeneous societies is a matter of speculation, but India with her culturally and ethnically diverse groups is known to be the world's largest democracy.

A sociological perspective
That democratic processes involve the interaction of the state and the citizen is beyond doubt, but which should have more influence has been a debate raging since time immemorial. While Durkheim believes that society is real, that it is an objective reality constraining us, Weber believes that it is the individual that is real and that society is an abstraction. 

"Sociologically the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand, and there is no task that one could say has always been exclusive and peculiar to those associations which are designated as political ones...Ultimately one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it...namely the use of political force." (Politics as a Vocation, 1919). Friedrich Engels and Marx developed this idea by saying that the state is an instrument of force that is only needed when society is built on the conflict of classes.

In "Politics as a Vocation" (1919), Weber also writes, "there is only the choice: leadership-democracy (Fuhrerdemokratie) or leaderless democracy." He defines leaderless democracy to be "the domination of "professional politicians" without a vocation, without the inner charismatic qualities that alone make a leader."

Perhaps a symbiotic relationship between the government and the people is an ideal medium in which a government by the people remains accountable enough to recall that it has been instituted for the people.

Woman journalists and democracy
"No press is truly free unless women share an equal voice."

— International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF)

One must not assume that by virtue of being a woman, every woman journalist automatically strives to fight for women's rights. There are many professionals who regard themselves as journalists first and women second. 

However, those who are actively involved in the cause of women's upliftment can surely make a difference, not only by actively encouraging more media coverage of women with more female-centric articles, but also by being more visible as reporters and covering what have been regarded to be hitherto male bastions, such as Barkha Dutt in Kargil.

Whilst women are increasingly reporting and presenting the news, they are rarely news subjects. This was the finding of the Global Media Monitoring Project 2000, which involved 70 countries. The startling finding is that while women account for 41 per cent of the presenters and reporters of the world's news, they are only 18 per cent of news subjects.

According to another survey more urban housewives —from 21.7 million in 1999 to 25.4 million now —read a daily newspaper at the cost of reading magazines. The reach of magazines has declined from 93.8 million in 1999 to 86.2 million in 2002, a 22 per cent loss, taking into account the population growth during the same period. Surely democratic processes are going haywire if women, who constitute about 50 per cent of the population, do not get adequate coverage, be it in the political or the apolitical spheres.

Highlighting stories on successful women, who in turn can serve as role models, is also something that woman journalists can be actively involved in. Although the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (PFA) affirmed that women should have, at least, a 30 per cent share of decision-making positions, women have not yet reached parity in any of the world's legislatures. In fact, in 1995, women represented less than 1per cent of all heads of state, top executives and land owners. They made up less than 5 per cent of UN ambassadors, less than 8 per cent of cabinet ministers and less than 12 per cent of all political party leaders. At the same time, they performed over 65 per cent of all unpaid work hours, accounted for 70 per cent of all of the world's poor, and women and children made up over 75 per cent of the world's refugees. (Waring, Marilyn. If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economy San Fransisco: Harper & Row, 1988.)

Woman journalists can also strengthen democratic processes by becoming involved in civic journalism, a journalism which involves an "explanatory" story frame to cover public issues instead of the "conflict" frame, which often reports two opposing viewpoints.

Civic journalism has increased public deliberation, civic problem solving, volunteerism and has led to changes in public policy, wrote Professor Lewis A. Friedland and doctoral student Sandy Nichols, of the Center for Communication and Democracy. 

A US study, "Measuring Civic Journalism's Progress," analyzed 651 projects published between 1994 and 2002 and collected by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. It traced the development of civic journalism and reported that about 85 per cent of the projects provided space for citizen perspectives. "The findings in this category are among the most unequivocal and important in our research," the study noted. "Civic journalism clearly extended the reach of journalism, incorporating new voices of citizens that simply would not have been otherwise heard."

Another important contribution could be focusing on journalism with a long-term impact. Reporters strive to get a good story for a quick byline, just as democratic governments tend to work on policies with a short-term impact in view of the next impending election. As a result, important issues that have global repercussions, such as environmental issues, are often put on the backburner. Journalists need to liaison with government representatives to concentrate on stories with a long-term impact, which may not necessarily merit a byline.

Journalists are the watchdogs of society and the newspaper is the fourth estate of a democracy. Journalists ought to make democratic processes work so that gaining access to government institutions is as easy as picking up a newspaper. And for this to take place a considerable amount of introspection within the press has to take place.

"Work at perfecting the journalism that democracy deserves…[is] worthwhile because the stakes are high…and both the citizens and the journalists need to see what they might be."

— Journalism and Citizenship