Karachi: “Female journalists continue to face an ongoing dilemma: how to combine masculine traits — being aggressive, self-reliant, curious, tough and ambitious — with feminine traits of being compassionate, caring, loving and maternal so she can compete with her male counterparts, but maintain the characteristics society expects from her,” writes Joe Saltzman in his essay Sob Sisters: The Image of The Female Journalist in Popular Culture.
This and other bits from the essay were part of a presentation being given by US broadcast journalists Terry Anzur and Linda Roth who conducted an interactive session with their female counterparts from Karachi on Wednesday afternoon.
Representatives of the Women Media Centre, Uks Research Centre and students were also part of the group present at the event organised by the US State Department, with the help of Terry Anzur Coaching Services, University of Southern California and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.
Anzur is a journalism trainer with nearly 30 years of experience in multimedia journalism, whereas Roth has worked at the Cable News Network (CNN) as a news producer and international correspondent for more than 25 years.
The presentation traced their perceived image vis-à-vis their job descriptions since women began to enter the profession in the US. They talked about the terms used for women journalists, such as “sob sisters”, which was used for women limited to doing teary stories on lighter topics such as fashion and culture.
Initially, women in the newsroom were just there to assist men. This scenario, however, changed during the Second World War when most of the males had gone off for combat and there was space for women to prove their mettle. One such example from the era was of Margaret Bourke-White, who was the first female war correspondent.
This was followed by the time when women became sidekicks, as in the case of Lois Lane of Superman, before they were accepted in mainstream journalism.
However, the age old problem of using women as “window pieces” still remains as it was decades ago and this is where, according to Anzur and Roth, true professionalism is tested.
In this case, they cited the example of Suzanne Stone in the movie ‘To Die For’, played by Nicole Kidman. Stone is an extremely ambitious woman who wants to be a television newscaster. She is willing to do “whatever” it takes to achieve her aims and makes up for her lack of professionalism by alluring people with her looks and feminine charms.
But then, they argued, there was also the example of Veronica Guerin, played by Cate Blanchett, in a movie based on the Irish crime reporter’s life.
Guerin, a writer for the Sunday Independent, is consumed by the activities of Dublin’s drug cartel and pays for her writing with her life. However, her death sparks public protests and a government crackdown on drug barons and other criminals, justifying her death in a manner of speaking, except for her son who has to grow up without a mother.
The conversation then moved towards the perception of women in the Pakistani media and members of the audience also shared their views. Najia Asher, a news anchor at Geo Television, said though media organisations had now started hiring brainy women, “beauties with brains” were still preferred over women who were just intelligent.
Novelist and journalist Bina Shah shared her own experience of being trolled on the internet for speaking her mind. According to her, the common perception of women on screen, be they actors or anchors, was of a woman with loose morals.
However, Afia Salam, the first female sports journalist in Pakistan, said that her experience had been quite different even in the rowdy environment of sports bleachers packed with men. She said her colleagues had always respected her and her professional space — she did the same — saying it actually depended on the women and what means they employed to command and earn the respect of their colleagues.
Nighat, who works in Urdu daily Jang, said she too did not face any ‘harassment’ as such, even though she hails from Balochistan.
The presentation then turned towards security threats to female journalists and also in general. Fawzia Shaheen, founder of the Women Media Centre, shared her experience of receiving threats after doing a story on female sex trafficking in Karachi for the Jang newspaper in 2000. She said that, though the ringleaders refrained from hurting her, they did end up roughing up her source.
All in all, the speakers concluded, though the image of women journalists had evolved over time, their perception in Pakistan — from what they were able to gather by the audience’s views — needed to be ironed out.
For one, people here still need to learn to differentiate between a reporter and an anchor, and then learn to value professional competence rather than their ability to be “window pieces”.