In March 2020, as COVID-19 spread around the world and political leaders began to realise that an immediate response to the pandemic would involve personal sacrifices and public action, politicians and their directors of public health policies took to stadiums, lecterns, and cameras to speak about the need to stay home, close schools and nurseries, and ration access to grocery stores and health services.
The men spoke of social cohesion and the need to act selflessly and responsibly. The women — who take on the greatest burden of housework, childcare and responsibility for ageing parents — sighed, took a deep breath and got to work.
In the past year, people worldwide have had to rethink the way they work, travel, educate their children, interact with their communities and maintain family ties.
And research has shown that during that weird year of stress, stillness and grief, women’s voices have largely disappeared, even though it is clear that while the long-term impacts of COVID-19 resonate through the whole of society, women have been hit the hardest financially.
How women consume news matters. Women are citizens and access to accurate, timely news is necessary for their democratic participation. It is also important as a channel to give people information about regulations, services, rights, and protections that affect them directly.
This is true at all times but particularly so during a pandemic when there are extraordinary controls on people’s behaviour and movement, and new advice on how to react to health-related issues. The pandemic has also brought with it new dangers for women: domestic violence and abuse in homes where they often feel trapped with their abuser.
A UN report on the impact of COVID-19 on men and women highlights how it has affected women disproportionately, “forcing a shift in priorities and funding across public and private sectors, with far-reaching effects on the well-being of women and girls”.
The report also warns that women worldwide have been hit harder economically by the crisis and that their lesser access to land and other capital makes it more difficult for them to weather the crisis and bounce back. In other words, there is a real danger of the pandemic leaving women weaker, poorer, and pushing them further out of the political sphere than they were before.
In such a climate it is vital that women have access to news and information that will help them survive and recover. This can be immediate, practical information about, for example, places of refuge and emergency legislation that allows them to leave their home and stay with a friend if they are in danger, even during a lockdown. And it can be broader: news about the efficacy and health impacts of vaccinations, about school closures, and the trustworthiness of politicians.
News, and in particular news organisations, can also serve another more social function: as a source of companionship, solace, identity, and entertainment. Again this is true at all times but it is particularly so with the restrictions necessitated by COVID-19 that have upended so many traditional networks and community spaces.
The first thing to understand is that men and women consume news differently, at different times of the day and in different ways. The traditional print model revolves around the idea of a man reading the paper at the breakfast table, with his wife preparing breakfast, possibly with the radio or television on in the background. Traces of these habits still remain in some countries, and many editors in Latin America, especially in Mexico and Brazil, find that print is still more popular among men, while women use TV and radio more. Overall, however, patterns of use are changing.
Patterns of news consumption are now determined by access to mobile data, broadband, and enabled devices, as well as the commute to work, types of employment, and, crucially, the time available — how women consume news has often been shaped by their domestic responsibilities. Many women also say news is a low priority for them, not something they believe they need in the course of their everyday life, and something that should not supersede other tasks.
News does not provide them with what they need; it provides neither escape nor information they feel they can utilise, and the emotions it invokes are negative. Instead, avoiding the news is often a strategic decision by busy caretakers to narrow their “circle of concern” — the things they have to think about on a daily basis.
It is clear that one of the structural inequalities COVID-19 has increased is women’s “time poverty”. Even before the pandemic, women did nearly three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men, and in the past year, as schools and nurseries closed, women found themselves trying to juggle yet more responsibilities at home.
Women and news: an overview of audience behaviour in 11 countries, a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, shows that women are more likely to use TV and radio — media that can be consumed while multi-tasking — while men use print and magazines.
Men and women interact with news differently, partly through personal choices and partly in response to the way in which they are treated when they do venture into public debates.
Men often receive more comments directed at their opinions and attitudes, but women who come under attack are likely to change their behaviours and become more wary of expressing opinions publicly. And while men tend to be attacked for what they think, i.e. their arguments and political attitudes, women are attacked more for simply being women.
Data shows that in most countries women are far less likely to read news via Twitter, which can often be a prime site for trolling and harassment, than men.
Online harassment towards women uses hyperbole and sexualised language, along with more subtle suggestions that women are somehow lesser beings, undeserving of resources, and less capable than men.
This online environment may well explain the differences in how women engage with news, and how they comment and share news with their networks.
Kenyans as a rule are very interested in news. The study showed that the number of both men and women who said they are extremely or very interested in news is higher than in the other countries covered and, significantly, 73 per cent of women said they were very or extremely interested in news — a figure that is much higher than in all the other countries surveyed.
And while women in many countries rely on a trusted friend or relative, or their partner, to tell them the news, passing on the snippets they feel may be interesting or relevant to them, this is especially true in Kenya, where they rely on friends and family rather than news editors to curate their news consumption.
It is worth spending some time looking at just where women do build communities and share, and where they are likely to feel comfortable in the company of others in their network. While men are more likely to be counted as news lovers in most countries, women are still likely to spend vast amounts of time consuming news and information, albeit on different platforms, often those that are linked to their caring responsibilities.
In many countries, a portion of some women’s time is spent on other forums — often ones about parenting — that still play a significant role in how women consume news. While not all women are parents, many still join these sites to participate in a female chat forum. As a result, many women occasionally consume news through links to the original article but more frequently through summaries and the ensuing debates.
Trust in news is a multi-faceted concept and a quick glance at the data shows that, in most of the countries analysed, women and men are almost equally likely to trust or distrust news. But it is worth looking at the patterns of how people share news, and how much they trust the news they receive through social media and through private messaging apps from their close friends and family.
There is usually a positive correlation between interpersonal trust, trust in the media, and trust in other institutions.
Wealth and education matter in this area too. A person’s level of education is the strongest sociodemographic predictor of trust in the media, with men and women with lower levels of education trusting news more than those with higher levels of education.
There are some differences between how much men and women trust the news they see on social media and the news they receive through their personal networks, but overall, the trends in the trust in news move in the same direction for both genders.
But what women want from news and crucially, what they are prepared to tolerate, is also changing.
Social media has helped here. Feminists have used new platforms and new activist tools to speak out and organise against sexism and misogyny, sometimes in the news media too. We see this with the #MeToo movement, but also with important specific mobilisations around, for example, #EleNão in Brazil, #ProtestToo in Hong Kong, and many more.
In Kenya this activism comes from Kenyan women’s anger over the country’s high rates of domestic violence and femicide, and the media’s portrayal of victims as somehow complicit in their own deaths has sparked a nationwide conversation about the role of women in newsrooms.
Some recent high-profile murders have acted as lightning rods for the protests. The rape and murder of university student Sharon Otieno in 2018 is a case in point. Much of the media used her case as a hook for writing articles about sugar daddies and female students, much to the fury of women who felt the coverage took away her dignity. Protests also erupted the following year after medical student Ivy Wangechi was murdered by a man who was stalking her and the media spent a disproportionate part of the coverage on her killer’s motivations.
The anger generated a series of social media movements including the Twitter hashtag #TotalShutdownKe and the Counting the Dead project (which keeps a tally of femicide victims) which sprang up and coalesced around the Women’s Day demonstrations. Attention also turned to the dangers faced by women living with abusive partners during lockdown.
This is part of a broader trend where historically disenfranchised populations in many countries are using digital media to work around male-dominated established news media spaces they have long been excluded from. Our audience data shows that women engage with established news media in ways that are sometimes quite different from those in which men engage with news.
The growing number of women-led protest movements against femicide, sexual assault, and online harassment around the world has also created new conversations about who in the newsroom is deciding the agenda and framing the news.
Newsrooms in Kenya are still dominated by men at the higher levels, and while there have been a handful of senior newspaper editors who are women, “Kenyan female journalists have tended to cover the more traditional beats of health, science, and lifestyle”.
This has meant that the news agenda has been decided by men with women portrayed under the male gaze. There is a new generation of female investigative and political reporters who are building up impressive reputations but they frequently find themselves the target of online attacks.
Two respected female news anchors, Lulu Hassan and Kanze Dena, were subjected to an absurd level of trolling in 2017 after they interviewed Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta in a wide-ranging interview that included a few soft questions about football and how he spends his free time. The comments focused on how they were asking silly questions, and were unsuited for political interviews, even though the resulting programme was a hit in terms of ratings with both men and women.
There are some initiatives to serve women audiences, but they tend to be external. The BBC has partnered with many media stations in Africa to create She Word, and The Nation, one of Kenya’s main newspapers, has a donor-funded gender desk. These initiatives have created space for news aimed at women, often by women, but they are generally seen as separate from the main news desk and their existence has little impact on the wider culture of Kenyan newsrooms.
Many media organisations are struggling to remain relevant to their readers and crucially, to persuade people to pay for journalism. Women are the great untapped potential here — a large, invested group of potential readers and viewers who want information that is relevant to their lives and those of their families and communities. In order to survive, journalism and journalists need to recognise this fact and change their message accordingly.