Newsrooms should follow two simple rules for reporting on women’s bodies

March 14, 2017
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Human rights attorney Amal Clooney delivered a speech at the United Nations last week exhorting Iraq to formally request a Security Council investigation so that the Islamic State would not “get away with genocide.”

“Mass graves in Iraq still lie unprotected and unexhumed,” Clooney warned. “Witnesses are fleeing. And there is still not one ISIS militant who has faced trial for international crimes anywhere in the world.”

Her address was so powerful that the US ambassador to the UN later tweeted her support.

Here’s how Time magazine tweeted about the event: “Amal Clooney shows off her baby bump at the United Nations.” (Time later changed its headline.)

British tabloids were no better. The Daily Mail’s headline read: “Wearing 4½in heels at 6 months pregnant … is that wise, Amal?” The Mirror headlined its story this way: “Amal Clooney is a vision in yellow as she shows off hint of baby bump in chic dress.”

Former first daughter Malia Obama got similar media treatment last month. The start of her internship in New York garnered coverage by The Huffington Post, Slate, and other publications that gave no mention of her responsibilities or career interests. Rather, they covered the style of jeans she wore to the office.

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Ignoring the actual work of brilliant women to gawk at their bodies is both sexist and irresponsible. It’s sexist because it reduces women to objects to be viewed while men, of course, don’t get the same treatment. I haven’t seen any reports lately about the stomachs, clothes, or shoes of male human-rights advocates. It’s irresponsible because it shifts focus away from the bodies of murdered civilians and onto the body of a celebrity. It leaves readers uninformed about one of the most pressing issues of our time.

How can the press do better in future coverage? Newsrooms should institute two common-sense policies.

First, media outlets should only report on a person’s appearance if such information is relevant to a story. If a subject is a model or fashion icon, for instance, it’s fine to report on her, or his, attire. Take award-winning Nigerian-American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, who has been outspoken about the fact that she thinks women can be both brilliant and beautiful, and who is a spokesmodel for the makeup brand No7. In that context, it makes sense for appearance to be part of the conversation.

In situations when a woman’s external appearance has nothing to do with the activities she’s pursuing, there’s no reason or excuse for commenting on it. Rather, reporters should report on the activities the woman is pursuing.

Much of the interest in Clooney’s body seemed to stem from the fact that she married Hollywood actor George Clooney. But a woman’s choice of partner isn’t an excuse to trivialize her based on appearance.

There’s more. Newsroom policy should also demand that if a media outlet is going to report on the bodies of women, then they should also report on the bodies of men in a similar fashion. That way women won’t be singled out for objectification. I somehow can’t imagine Time following through on its tweet if it required also covering the UN Secretary-General salaciously.

Of course, not all journalists cover women in this way. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for example, responded to Time magazine’s tweet about Clooney with his own: “Oh, c’mon. Better headline: Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney calls for action at U.N. against genocide and mass rape of the Yazidi people.”

Also, while much of the most offensive reporting came from tabloids, as The Washington Post noted, even serious outlets such as the Associated Press and BBC World Service reported on Clooney’s choice of husband in their coverage.

Every newsroom needs policies about how they cover people’s bodies. It’s time for the media to evolve past archaic notions of how women’s bodies should be discussed. The imprint a woman leaves on the world has little to do with the silhouette of her shoe, and everything to do with the work she pursues.

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Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of journalism, media studies, and public relations at Hofstra University and the author of Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication. Twitter: @karaalaimo.