Asking the wrong folks: the media’s fatal flaw

29 Jun

I read an article this morning in the Raleigh News and Observer about how often the news media asks men for views on women’s issues. According to the article by Paul Farhi of the Washington Post, a study analyzed 50,000 quotes from 35 print sources and the transcripts of 11 network news programs over a six month period. The period in question was one when there were lots of women’s issues in the news, ranging from the Komen Organization’s nasty attempt to ditch Planned Parenthood to the idiot Limbaugh calling a young woman a slut because she wanted her insurance to pay for birth control.

Women evidently accounted for less than a third, or around 31% of the respondents or sources for quotes and comments on these issues. In other words, even on topics specifically concerning women men are twice as likely to be asked to comment than women. This should not be surprising to anyone. In the media woman are about 40% of news staff and 22 percent of radios staff and 37% of newspaper staff. Since women are actually a majority in America these statistics should be worrying, but they are not to most people evidently.

This, I am afraid, is yet another symptom of the growing disconnect between being informed in our current society and being dependent on sound bites to tell us what is what. I frequently encounter people in social media from all walks of life who quote things quite sincerely that bear no relation to the truth at all. They repeat them as if they were gospel because they “heard” it on the radio or on television.

I realize I am a privileged person, I have time to fact check things and I have computers and devices everywhere with me at all times. There is always an iPhone, iPad or computer within my reach , day and night. I can see or hear something that does not strike me as correct and be online looking for sources to vindicate or refute the claim within seconds. So can most of America, but they do not do it. There is a strange desire to have what we want to be true to be true rather than wanting to know what is actually true at play in our society.

If I hate Barack Obama for whatever reason I am ready to believe that universal health care is socialist, that people in countries with universal health care have people dying in droves while awaiting surgery or other medical procedures. I also believe these poor souls from these obviously inferior countries are pouring into America for health care. I guess the people who choose to believe this have not read the accounts of Americans going to India and other places overseas to get everything from dental work to heart surgery at much more reasonable prices. But then, those who have irrational hatred of the President are probably not big readers to begin with.

But, let’s get back to the women. What would possess a news reporter to ask a man what he thinks about a woman’s issue? Is it couched in sexism? Paternalim? Outdated gender roles? Or do men “experts” just have more credibility in our society than women “experts”, even on women’s issues?

I have to, of course, draw the parallel those of you who know me are probably waiting for, between sexism and racism. My first reaction to the article was actually, “Duh, welcome to my world.” Most of the commentary, oral and written, scholarly and popular media, about black people is made by white people. If it is counter intuitive to ask men about women’s issues  why is it okay to ask white people about black people’s issues? Aren’t we risking the same disconnect , lack of understanding, gaps in information?

If someone came to me and wanted to interview me about erectile dysfunction I would not feel comfy talking about how it must feel to have your little soldier unable to stand at attention. But, some men feel very comfortable expressing themselves about women’s issues from abortion to menopause to the merits or perils of wearing 4 inch heels. The same hubris is at play with both gender and race. ” I am superior because I am male/white, so I can talk about those folks with authority!”

I once had a relatively spirited argument with a priest, yes a priest, when we were out drinking together. He had just returned from East Saint Louis where he had done a several month study in the black community. He was white and a did I mention, a priest. Brother T told me ” Cookie, they accepted me totally, told me everything honestly, treated me like I was family.” Bless his heart, he actually believed it. I reminded him that according to the experts once an outlier, a person not of the community, enters a situation he/she alters the community and therefore his/her research can only partially reflect the true community.

I referred him to an article I had recently co-authored, “Researcher reflexivity through the lens of race” and gave him the example of me interviewing and interacting with a group of white men. If I came to the group it is no longer a group of white men. As a result anything I write about my experience amongst white men has to have an asterisk or footnote. This is no longer an study of how white men act when they are in a group of white men, this is now a study of how white men act when they are in a group that includes a black woman.

I am going to say this once more, if you ain’t one, you cannot write, comment or understand one like members of the in-group can. It is not possible unless you build a blind and study them unobserved.

I am pretty sure the men asked about the women’s issues were not in blinds disguised to look like parking meters, boutique store fronts or hot dog carts observing women from their hiding place.

So, if men are asked to comment on how many women there are, or share their survey results then that is fine, objective/num data know no gender. If they are asked about how women feel or should feel about something unless they heard it from a lot of women, a whole bunch of women and a diverse sample of women they should politely say ” I do not know, why don’t you go ask a woman?”

Part of the allure of us women is that we are incomprehensible. We practice it, we hone our skills and we revel in our mastery of keeping men guessing. The idea that some of them think they have figured us out is only proof that they are easier to fool than I thought.

If you want to know about women, ask women. If you want to know about blacks, ask blacks, if you want to know about Latinos, ask Latinos( and try to ask the ones from the country that you are talking about, Puerto Ricans and Cubans are not much alike) , if you want to know about Asians, ask Asians ( try to make sure they are the right folks, Japanese and Indians are kind of different).if you want to know about the LGBTQ community ask members of that community, anything else will only get you faulty data, and laughed at by the people you are commenting on.


One response to “Asking the wrong folks: the media’s fatal flaw

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