“When a country has problems, women are often the answer.”
Long a source of stories about gender inequality, Public Radio International (PRI) recently made this the headline of a story that highlighted an increasing number of findings proving that women’s status affects everything from public health to the economy and government.
Unfortunately, the media don’t often reflect this impact. Over the past 20 years, female subjects in print, radio, and television have increased only to 24%, up from 17% in 1995. When women do make news, 46% of those stories serve to reinforce gender stereotypes, while just 6% challenge them.
“Name one positive archetype for women in the news,” challenges Alisa Miller of PRI. For men, there are plenty, most notably the one about the high school dropout who taught himself to code and then built a billion-dollar company. Is there a female equivalent? “I can’t think of one, except in entertainment,” she says. Yet there, says Miller, it’s complicated by the objectification of celebrities.
As CEO of PRI, Miller aims to change all that. The organization just launched a reporting initiative called Across Women’s Lives (AWL).
The plan is to produce at least three times the coverage of commercial news media on women’s rights issues, which will take up nearly a quarter (18%) of PRI’s total news coverage. Miller says she believes Across Women’s Lives will eventually reach an audience of at least 65 million.
At a time when women are woefully underrepresented in the top ranks of news media jobs–men occupy 73% of management at more than 500 media companies globally–Miller doesn’t believe PRI would be taking this step if she weren’t leading the charge and if the board chair and 35% of the board weren’t female. “That doesn’t mean a man couldn’t do it,” she maintains. “What I know is that it hadn’t happened yet.”
Her gender notwithstanding, Miller has long been concerned about what she calls a “news nutrition deficiency.” Back when she was named one of Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Tech, Miller was focusing on diversifying PRI’s audience by disrupting traditional methods of news gathering and reporting. “Your newsroom should be far greater than [its] resources,” she told us at the time. “The people formerly known as the audience should be part of your content creation.”
AWL is an outgrowth of that focus to fulfill unmet needs, stepping back and taking a look at broader trends. “If there are major swaths of stories not being told,” Miller posits, “then we are not getting an accurate picture of the world.”
Covering news, Miller contends, is an exercise in capturing history every day. By not telling women’s stories in the news, a full 50% of the population is not represented. “We are losing our history and making decisions based on a lack of information,” says Miller.
Miller says PRI always put out “a bunch of content focused on women.” It’s taken the last couple of years to figure out how to raise its game, she says, and not play into gender stereotypes. “We know from social science that a lack of or distorted news has a measurable effect on societal health and well-being,” Miller observes. She cites the research of UC Berkeley professor of psychology Dacher Keltner on the importance of building empathy and compassion, and says, “We can’t let news off the hook for bridging the empathy gap.”
That’s why AWL’s intent is to look at a woman’s entire life from birth through old age, and every stage in between, to reveal how gender roles impact women in health care, education, employment, politics, and social life.
Part of this was born from what PRI’s audience was already talking about and responding to. As in her previous initiatives to engage the audience as newsmakers, Miller says, “We are listening as much as we are talking.”
A story that aired just before the official launch of AWL was about a woman in India who lost custody of her children due to a misdiagnosed mental illness. Committed to an institution and subsequently released, the woman still faces the social stigma brought on by being labeled bipolar. “The response was amazing,” Miller asserts. “People saw themselves in this woman from halfway around the world.” That was the impetus to ensure coverage was relevant to all women, from Southeast Asia to South Bend, Indiana, and everywhere in between. “There are common themes that cut across [all of life],” says Miller. “There is a sisterhood that happens globally.”
Just don’t expect to get a slew of feel-good stories in the guise of female empowerment. “In the end, we are telling the full story, the good and the bad,” Miller argues. “This isn’t a happy-stories initiative, this is about newsworthy stuff.”
That sisterhood is expected to gel around a partnership backed by the technology of SheKnows Media’s platform and the BlogHer community. Together they’ve created a social news publishing incubator (#womenslives) to further awareness and engagement for AWL.
Miller is eager to see the early results of the coverage and the partnership in part because, as a CEO, she understands that investing in women makes good business sense, too. “Women are the tectonic plate that speaks to the health of society overall, yet we don’t even see them,” she says.
It’s important to note that Miller’s stance isn’t meant to be exclusionary. AWL isn’t against men, she says. “Our lives are newsworthy as much as men’s, and it’s good for both to have a balanced perspective on the world because that helps us make better decisions.”