NewsMavens shows how different the world looks when women choose the news

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The notion of what does and does not constitute “news” is a highly subjective one – but growing evidence is emerging to suggest that women and men prioritise stories differently.

For the past two years, an international news website titled NewsMavens has been examining how news agendas might change if only women, and not men, were dominant in making the key calls on which stories are given highest profile and how those stories are angled. It identified a fundamental difference in perspectives between the genders.

“Men have a tendency to look at the top of the pyramid, at the big players both in business and politics, the power players who make the decisions that affect the rest of the world,” says Zuzanna Ziomecka, head of NewsMavens. “What women bring is a look at what happens lower down – the consequences of those decisions and how they affect people on the street.”

The NewsMavens project, which has been backed by Google and its Digital News Initiative fund, has grown to a team of 30 female journalists representing countries from all over Europe. It has support and partnerships with many large European news brands, including Italy’s La Repubblica, The Irish Times, Spain’s El País, and Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, where Ziomecka is based.

For two years the women journalists have been creating “an alternative front page” by identifying and republishing the stories from across Europe that most resonate with them, and then monitoring how those issues are received by an online audience which is 90 per cent female.

Adriana Petriczko, who worked on social media for NewsMavens, suggests a possible link between traditional news values and divisions in society. “The general mood in male-dominated newsrooms is treating news as sport and looking for the clashes and conflicts and competition,” she says. “The kind of news that our curators were selecting was more about what is behind the clashes – the personal stories and trends. Speaking generally, male-dominated newsrooms are looking for who said what against whom – it’s not very productive and it causes tensions.”

NewsMavens found that readers responded profoundly to stories that showed a systemic failure of women, such as a Dutch Christian organisation that forced 15,000 women into unpaid labour, or the legal loophole that allowed five Spanish men who gang-raped an 18-year-old woman to be charged only with sexual abuse because of a lack of evidence of violence.

Ziomecka says that rape stories had a “disproportionate impact” on reader traffic. “In most countries there is a huge discrepancy between the number of instances of harassment and the number that get reported to police. Most women know that.”

In its “FemFacts” column (a sub-project supported by the European Commission), NewsMavens highlights examples of mainstream media prejudice in coverage of women; such as a Croatian mother accused in the press of spoiling her daughter’s wedding by bringing charges against the estranged husband who slapped her at the ceremony; or the way media took its angle for covering the killing of a 22-year-old British woman in a Swiss hotel this year by endorsing the suspect’s claim that the death resulted from a “sex game gone wrong”. Ziomecka says: “We are looking for slant, misrepresentation, manipulation of facts, stereotypes.”

NewsMavens ends as a project at the end of this month, but it has inspired a European network of female journalists who will continue to report on specific issues on a pan-Continental basis.

This approach is important, Ziomecka believes, in showing how apparently localised issues – such as obstetricians performing gynaecological procedures without anaesthetic – might be shown to be part of a European problem. “The potential of surfacing macro-continental trends is a goldmine,” she says. One of the things we don’t do in the European Union is we don’t share enough. We don’t share mistakes we have made to help other members of the EU avoid them.”

NewsMavens raises questions over the need for both improved gender balance in newsrooms and greater consideration of the interests of the female news audience.

A starting point for the project was a critical piece of work by The International Women’s Media Foundation, titled Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media. The 2011 study found that only 27% of top management jobs and just 36% of reporting positions were held by women.

Ziomecka had the idea for NewsMavens and was supported by Jerzy Wójcik, publishing director of Gazeta Wyborcza, a progressive Polish daily created 30 years ago, following the overthrow of communism. Ziomecka was head of digital for the paper’s women’s supplement, Wysokie Obcasy, which covers current affairs and social issues from a women’s perspective. “We thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to give Europe a women’s perspective on current affairs as well – that’s where the idea was born,” she says. The plan was championed by Ludovic Blecher, now head of innovation for the Google News Initiative. “Although the idea was mine, and the project is peopled almost exclusively by women, the key people who made it possible were men.”

Building the pan-European project was not easy. “It was a hard sell – I was no one and there was no telling what the project might turn out to be,” says Ziomecka of her “mail-bombing” attempt to use emails to attract interest from potential media partners. She especially struggled in the UK, despite numerous approaches to The Guardian. She had more success after producing a personal video for social media, directed at senior women in the media. “That turned out to be a much more scalable and easy way to find partners.”

During its lifespan, NewsMavens changed to meet the demands of its readers, she says. “We started out as a general news portal that was narrating current affairs from a women’s perspective and then after the first year we pivoted towards women’s issues because that’s what our readers were gravitating towards – we saw this very clearly in the statistics.”

At the project’s conclusion, it will produce two reports. The first, reflecting the interests of readers, will be a “feminist road map” of Europe, identifying the “hottest topics and biggest challenges for women in every country” and citing key individuals and organisations working to create change.

The second, informed by the FemFacts scheme, will assess the scale of media misrepresentation of women in Europe, including a section for media on “mistakes to avoid”.

The significance of the NewsMavens initiative partly depends on whether the concerns it highlights are shared by a broader and more conservative female demographic than that at the heart of this project. Ziomecka says a number of contributors had “a mission-based focus on women or minorities”. Readers who came to the site were attracted to stories on marginalised groups, including Roma communities and parents of children with disabilities. More work will be needed to see if these subjects are of greater interest to female audiences in general.

Ziomecka was frustrated that NewsMavens readers did not make more effort to read stories from outside their own borders. “The public interest in countries that they have never visited or don’t have friends from is very low.” But this parochialism demonstrates the opportunity for media to pursue NewsMavens-type schemes in their own territories. The project is also a stepping stone to examine coverage of news specialisms, from business to sport, all of which might be viewed and prioritised differently from a female standpoint.

“Women feel that their perspective is underrepresented and that the stories they find compelling are hard to dig out and not being told in the way they would like to see them told,” Ziomecka insists. “Giving women space and support in surfacing these topics would be beneficial for just about any media organisation that tries it.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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