Exposing Sexism in Tabloid Headlines
An Interview with Erin Valentine and Ashley McGetrick of “Breaking News: Deconstructing Entertainment Journalism”
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1) Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and your backgrounds. How did you become drawn into women’s studies and media criticism?
Ashley is now a senior at Elon University and I just graduated this past week. Ashley is a double major in Broadcast Journalism and Media Arts & Entertainment with a minor in Women and Gender Studies. I just graduated with a degree in journalism and minors in women and genders studies and international studies. Because we both have WGS minors, for our capstone course we were to create an activism project. As friends and fellow communication majors, Ashley and I decided to use our shared interests and looked at the portrayal of women in the media.
2) Tell us a bit in general about your project. What inspired you to specifically target tabloid headlines among the variety of sexist media out there?
We decided to target tabloid headlines for a few reasons. One, they’re the most blatantly incorrect ones that show the sexism of the media. Two, previous projects have been done similarly by others so we thought we could use their idea and add the element of media literacy. Also, Ashley is very much interested in entertainment journalism, so she is familiar with tabloid headlines.
3) Your site had a survey set up so you could gage thoughts before and after your subjects saw the “before” and then “after” headlines. What do you see as patterns in survey responses?
The results of our experiment revealed several things to us regarding both sexism in journalism and also our research methods. To begin with, a very small percentage of respondents our were male, despite the project being evenly distributed to women and men. It is likely that this topic resonates more with woman, especially considering the majority of the images shown in the media examples depicted women. Also, almost three quarters of our respondents reported that they were “not often” offended by entertainment journalism. This is troubling, because the majority considered themselves to be media literate and over half considered themselves feminists. How can media literate feminists be consuming entertainment journalism and not be offended by its objectification and dissection of the female body?
Another interesting point was how little influence the participants felt they had over the media. Just over 60% of respondents reported having “minor influence” over media outlets. This reveals that people need to be more educated on the power of their viewership and how much it influences the incomes of media companies and consequently which media they choose to publish in the future.
4) Do you think that people, in general, truly realize how sexist and body-focused or appearance-focused these headlines are?
I think that people just see them and are possibly so used to the body-focused content that they don’t know to question it. But, once they are aware that some headlines are sexist and appearance-focused, they start recognizing and questioning the media they see around them, hence increasing their media literacy.
5) When you went through creating these redo headlines, did you find any that were about men looking “sloppy” coming from the gym or, similarly, that focused on how many outfits guys wore on the promotion circuit?
We didn’t really find too many about men looking bad. Most of the headlines were very appearance-based and focused on men’s sex appeal. We decided to focus on women in our examples because they is so much more material to use, but there are certainly headlines in entertainment journalism that are negative for men as well and need to be looked at.
6) Are you familiar with the “Ask Her More” campaign to get media outlets to ask actresses on the red carpet serious craft questions that they only seem to ask male colleagues? Why do you think that our journalism and even tabloid media focus on appearance for women so exclusively?
I am! The “Ask Her More” campaign was actually one of our inspirations! For the Beyoncé example in particular, I know we channeled it. Journalism and tabloid media focus on the physicality of women so much more than men because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to do as a society for centuries. Women historically have been written about for the their beauty and not always their accolades. In modern society, we need to change that and focus on a woman’s accomplishments, not just her accessories.
7) Did you have any surprising results from your study?
One of the most promising statistics was that only one participant reported being “not concerned” with sexism in entertainment journalism. The rest of the group said they were either somewhat or very concerned with the issues after viewing the media samples. Also, almost all of the participants said that viewing these media samples would influence their purchasing and viewership “very much” or “somewhat”.
8) What is the next step for you all? We weren’t sure if you were graduating but are you planning to go further and branch out with new projects or expansions to point out media sexism?
The next step would be to educate individuals on how powerful their consumership is, and how they can strategically use this power to hold media companies accountable for their publications. I know that now that I have graduated I am hoping to take this project and new ones into the workplace with me and continue to educate others. Unfortunately the media is still providing constant examples of sexism for us to point us and critique.
9) What would be the ideal type of coverage for women in the media (singers, actresses, etc.)?
I think the ideal type of coverage for women in the media would be to focus on women’s achievements, accolades, and accomplishments. Women in the media do so much but it’s often buried under the coverage of their appearance. I think slowly turning media coverage from their looks to their career would be a huge step.