Gender and tabloids in Southern Africa - A study by gender links.
Subject: Tabloid newspapers (Criticism and interpretation)
Women, Black (Media coverage)
Pub Date: 06/01/2008
Publication: Name: Sister Namibia Publisher: Sister Namibia Audience: Academic; General Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 Sister Namibia ISSN: 1026-9126
Issue: Date: June, 2008 Source Volume: 20 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Product: Product Code: 2711700 Tabloids NAICS Code: 51111 Newspaper Publishers SIC Code: 2711 Newspapers
Geographic: Geographic Scope: South Africa Geographic Code: 6SOUT South Africa
Accession Number: 184549997
Full Text: The scene is the quarterly meeting of the South African National Editors Forum in Cape Town in early 2007. The focus is a panel of tabloid editors. A media studies professor has just thrown down the gauntlet, saying in his view tabloids should not even try to masquerade as journalism. He cites the case of a story in one tabloid in which the penis of a rapist is referred to as the "spear of the nation."


Don't tabloids have any kind of obligation to uphold the basic human rights principles of the Constitution, he asks? If that's the way people speak in the townships, retorts a tabloid editor, why should we censor it? Women readers love tabloids, he adds, and there are far more women sources and stories about women in tabloids than in the mainstream press. Tabloid helplines, he adds, are flooded with calls from women because they are far more effective at fighting crime and finding lost children than the local police station. Rather than just lambaste tabloids, the editor argues, gender and media analysts need to take note of the social contribution that they make.

"Tabloids are mushrooming across Southern Africa and they are here to stay," says a recent study on gender and tabloids conducted by Gender Links. The 2007 study focused on the three Southern African countries with the highest density of tabloids, Mauritius, South Africa and Tanzania. It included monitoring of three newspapers in each country, desk research, interviews with editors, gathering of case material, and an audience survey of 280 readers in the three countries.

According to Gender Links director Colleen Lowe Morna, "This research shows us that contrary to the claims made by editors, tabloids only give slightly more voice to women than the mainstream media (an average of twenty five percent in this study). Women in tabloids are more likely to feature as images than as news sources, and blatant stereotypes abound. Screaming headlines exacerbate the image of the macho man and helpless woman, coming close at times to glorifying gender violence. Tabloids often portray women in extremes of either the virtuous virgin or devil incarnate. While editors may argue that there are stories of 'ordinary' women in the inner pages, it is the images of woman as sex objects on the prominent front page, page three and the back pages that remain etched in the mind."

Gender stereotypes

Tabloids most often portray women as beauty contestants, home makers, domestic workers, office workers, social workers and students. Men, on the other hand, are featured in a range of roles - professionals, NGO workers, business people, labourers and drivers, religious figures and politicians. Tabloids also reinforce subtle stereotypes and ageism. Women ages twenty through thirty-four figure prominently, but women over fifty disappear from the pages.

The study found that women readers are unhappy about these blatant stereotypes, especially when they see sexualised images of women in the tabloids. In fact, both men and women reported that they would like to see men and women represented differently; both genders want to see women in professional and leadership roles and both genders would primarily like to see men portrayed as parents. Women would also like to see men as homemakers and men would like to see men in "non traditional" roles.

Seen more than heard

While women constituted twenty five percent of news sources in this study on tabloids, they comprise thirty five percent of the images. The voices of black women are marginalised at eighteen percent. However this figure is much higher than in the mainstream media where black women constitute only seven percent of sources. Both figures however, fall short when compared to their strength in the population (forty-five percent).

According to the study, women's views are under-represented in all topic categories in tabloids, especially in sports, politics and economics. Unlike the mainstream media, in which women had more to say than men in only the gender equality topic category, in tabloids men's views predominate even in this topic category. The only topic category in which women's view predominated in tabloids was health, with celebrity news a close second. Women reporters make up twenty nine percent of those who wrote stories, although the figure varies across countries.

Why are we reading tabloids?

Sixty percent of women and fifty percent of men said they read tabloids to "catch up on the gossip." Other reasons given by women included looking at photos of celebrities and "to have a laugh." Men included more serious reasons, like news coverage. Men also like the headlines. Significantly, none of the women said they liked the headlines, which often perpetrate blatant gender stereotypes.

Audiences also like the interactive aspects of tabloids. Both women and men responded very positively to "articles in which people are asked what they think about something," with the favourite genre for women being the advice columns, human interest stories, profiles and portraits.

What needs to change?

While people are reading tabloids, they are not necessarily happy with what they are getting. According to the report's conclusion, tabloid audiences say that they want less negative news; violence; pornography and images that degrade women. Many readers want a better mix of entertainment and news. Audiences also want more local, human interest news, including on subjects such as education, health, HIV and Aids. The popularity of advice columns, especially among women, is a reflection of a need for more psychosocial counselling services in communities as well as more interactive news forms. Tabloids could, for example, show the way when it comes to on-line discussions and bulletin boards on topical social and lifestyle issues, opening up the Internet to readers who have never had access to this space, especially women.



The study highlights several recommendations for the way forward for media activists including conducting campaigns to publicise the findings and devising strategies for increasing gender awareness and sensitivity in the tabloid industry. It also advises broadening media literacy, consumer awareness and activism. The study offers recommendations for tabloid editors, as well as gender ministries.

In the end, the report reminds us of the roles and responsibilities of the media in a democracy. "While we do not advocate censorship in any form," says the conclusion, "we believe that the media has a significant role to play in developing a critical and informed citizenry. There are also certain bottom lines with regard to respect for human dignity to which every citizen and organisation is enjoined by the Constitutions that are the supreme law of the land. Tabloids are not above these norms. They, like any other form of media, must be held accountable, by their readers, by media watchdogs, and most important by themselves."

Source: Gender and Tabloids in Southern Africa, edited by Colleen Lowe Morna and Sikhonzile Ndlovu, published by Gender Links. Find the full report on their website

From the Foreword, Gender and Tabloids in Southern Africa, by Colleen Lowe Morna
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