As part of our ongoing series examining the media’s “blind spot” towards gender, race and class, we ask Danah Abdulla about the media’s attitudes towards women and the role social media could play in ensuring that more diverse voices are heard.
How would you define or characterise the media’s blind spot?
The most interesting stories I’ve come across in the UK are in The Guardian and the Independent, because they are more sympathetic towards featuring stories from people other than their journalists. The BBC, maybe once in a blue moon, has an interesting story, but I don’t think there are enough people working for the channel who are non-English. So you would have to seek out so many different sources, including independent blogs and so on, to get a variety of stories. This is one of the reasons I started Kalimat because it’s less about having a timestamp on it. We look for more analysis, so that if you were to pick it up in two year’s time it would still be relevant.
Many of the writers who write for us are women and they’re the ones that come up with extremely interesting stories, and when they share their own perspectives, it’s really engaging. These are people who are on the ground, whereas most journalists are there for a couple of days and grew up somewhere completely different, and have a completely different perspective.
If you look at the internet overall, you’ll find a lot of women writing their own blogs, and there are so many interesting things happening. Sometimes, you’ll find them writing on the Huffington Post, but it’s very rare.
What do you think of the media coverage of women’s issues generally, and how does the blind spot operate in that respect?
You only have to look at how they treat celebrities. Take L’Wren Scott for example. She had a career. She was successful before she met Mick Jagger, but when she was died she was always referred to as “Mick Jagger’s girlfriend”. Even when it’s not the case, the media frame it in a way that reduces women into sex objects.
The stories on women in the Arab world always relate to the same things – sexual harassment and veils – which is often boring. It is quite superficial coverage. I don’t think there is enough stuff about women that’s really engaging and interesting.
The Western media has what Hamid Dabashi coined the “Native Informants”. Women like Mona Eltahawy are presented as the spokespeople for every single woman in the Arab world, when they just bring forth one perspective.The media hangs on to these famous names, but we need more women writers, and greater diversity of people writing and sharing their opinions. Even if you don’t agree with the opinion, it’s important to show diversity in the content, otherwise Eltahawy, and a few other women who are writing what the Western media wants to hear, is what’s going to sell newspapers.
What are the challenges facing people working in the media?
Journalists need to stop looking at the big names and to start paying more attention to what’s going on online and around them. They need to look at independent media outlets and consider why they exist. There’s obviously a need for them and there’s obviously something lacking on their part, so what is it? If you’re just bringing in the same people who are playing the same note over and over again, then there’s a problem. It’s laziness, really. There’s an abundance of people out there who could be an expert on this topic. You just need to start opening your eyes and looking around.
What role does digital media play in challenging the blind spot?
Younger people are looking around themselves more. It’s obvious from the emails I get, that people are looking for an alternative source, which is why they found us in the first place. Usually, they’ve been doing some digging on a particular topic.
Digital media provides you with more choice, and more to think about. You can go to a variety of blogs and get a variety of different opinions and really think about a topic. This way you become more informed than if you read the BBC online all day. If you look at the fashion world, there’s definitely room for them to impact on the mainstream. There’s The Sartorialist and Tavi Gevinson who was 12 years old when she started blogging, and is now sitting on the front row at Fashion Week. When someone gets a hold of it, it skyrockets. Of course you have these particular instances where these influencers make it big and the bloggers who end up writing for bigger publications. This happens because someone did their research and came across them.
Interview by Julie Tomlin.
About the author
Danah Abdulla is a designer, writer, researcher and editor. Currently, she is an MPhil/PhD candidate in the design department at Goldsmiths, University of London, and she is also the founder, creative director and editor of Kalimat magazine. She obtained an MA in Social Design from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and has a BA (Hons) in Communications from the University of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.