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Why representative discourse in the media matters

12 March 2021

Take a close look at the photo above. Do you see anything off-balance?

Of all the photographers in this scene which I captured at one of this year’s unofficial Women’s Day protests, only two are women. In fact, just 15% of photojournalists are women. That’s the distribution you can see in the photo above.

At every protest I attend in Madrid, I’m one of very few women holding the camera. You’ll probably find me crouching down on the ground, as many women photographers do so as to not get in anyone’s way.

Why is representative discourse important?

The press holds a lot of power and this power should be evenly distributed across the full spectrum of society, but it isn’t. Representative discourse does not yet exist because women and other marginalised groups are too often not the ones holding the camera, the pen or the mic.

In practise, representative discourse is centred around experience and understanding. For example, a woman is more likely to be accurately represented by someone who has lived similar experiences to her, who might have experienced sexism, objectification, misogyny or patriarchal career setbacks. In knowing that the person interviewing you hears you, or that the person taking photographs of you sees you, you feel more at ease that you will be accurately recorded, and are more likely to feel safe to explain yourself as you want.

As another example, a migrant is more likely to be accurately represented by someone with a migrant background due to their understanding of societal and structural racism, as well as cultural differences and being misrepresented in the media.

As much as journalists do their best to accurately represent their subject, the subject’s voice and image is still going through that of the journalist, and unconscious bias comes into play. I’ve been on both sides: I’ve interviewed and been interviewed, and am accurately aware of how important it is to understand the person you’re interviewed and being interviewed by.

Unfortunately, I have been interviewed a number of times by people who have little understanding of who I am, which has directly resulted in racist and sexist online harassment, and so I now rarely agree to interviews with mainstream newspapers because I don’t trust them to portray me accurately. This results in me, and people like me, being less visible in the media. However, when I connect with the subject or the journalist, the story unfolds in the most magical way.

How can you help ensure representative discourse in the media?

As a journalist, please pass the mic to someone better suited to the story for their experience with it. As a member of the audience, learn who took the photo and who wrote the article, and celebrate their work.

Support me too. Help me tell the stories that matter and to keep having the time and resources to bring you stories from the very communities that don’t receive representative coverage. Support MNF for as little as $1 per month, which you can cancel at any time. 

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