You flip to your local Clear Channel station to find a shock jock "joking" about where kidnappers can most easily buy nylon rope, tarps, and lye for tying up, hiding, and dissolving the bodies of little girls. Reuters runs an important international news brief about a Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning for an alleged sexual infraction—in its "Oddly Enough" section, where typical headlines include "Unruly Taxi Drivers Sent to Charm School."
When California Democrats Loretta and Linda Sanchez become the first sisters ever to serve together in Congress, the Washington Post devotes 1,766 words in its style section to inform readers about the representatives' preferences regarding housekeeping, hairstyles, and "hootchy shoes." (Number of paragraphs focusing on the congresswomen's political viewpoints: one.) Nearly a million demonstrators gather in cities across the country to protest impending war on Iraq; America's top print and broadcast news outlets significantly undercount protestors' numbers...again.
So, what else is new? Sexist and biased fare is business as usual for all too many media outlets—but what do you do when hurling household objects at Dan Rather's head just isn't enough? These tips from Women In Media & News (WIMN), a New York-based media-monitoring, training, and advocacy group, can help you make the leap from righteous indignation to effective critique.
Be firm but polite
Make your case sans insults, rants, and vulgarity. Nothing makes it easier for editors and producers to dismiss your argument than name-calling. Good idea: "Your discussion of the rape survivor's clothing and makeup was irrelevant, irresponsible, and inappropriate. Including those details blames the victim and reinforces dangerous myths about sexual assault." Bad idea: "Your reporter is a woman-hating incarnate of satan!"
Be realistic but optimistic
Calling for the New York Times to transform itself into a socialist newspaper will get you nowhere; suggesting that quotes from industry executives be balanced by input from labor and public-interest groups is more likely to be taken seriously.
Choose your battles
While we'd all like to see fewer female bods used to sell beer, asking the networks to reject such ads is a waste of time. (A letter-writing campaign to the companies that produce those ads is another matter.) However, it's worth the effort to pressure telecom and cable giant Comcast to air the antiwar ads it censored during Bush's State of the Union speech.
Correct the record
For example, remind media outlets discussing "partial birth abortion" that this imprecise and inflammatory term doesn't refer to an actual medical procedure but is, rather, a political concept fabricated by conservative groups to decrease public support for abortion rights. Focusing on facts is more persuasive than simply expressing outrage: "Christina Hoff Sommers's quote contained the following inaccuracies·" is better than "Antifeminists like Christina Hoff Sommers should not be quoted in your newspaper."
Expose biased or distorted framing
Look at whose viewpoint is shaping the story. In light of the Bush Administration's assault on affirmative action, for example, Peter Jennings asked on World News Tonight: "President Bush and race: Does he have a strategy to win black support?" Let ABC producers know that you'd rather they investigate the economic, academic, and political implications of the president's agenda for African-Americans than the effects of race policy on Bush's approval rating.
Keep it concise and informative
If your goal is publication on the letters page, a couple well-documented paragraphs will always be better received than an emotional three-page manifesto. Sticking to one or two main points will get a busy editor to read through to the end.
Don't complain that your local paper "never" reports on women's issues or "always" ignores poor people. Even if stories on topics like workfare are infrequent or inaccurate, their very existence will serve as proof to editors that your complaint doesn't apply to their publication.
Address the appropriate person
Letters about reportorial objectivity sent to editorial columnists or opinion-page editors will be tossed in the circular file.
Nothing peeves an editor faster than typos or bad grammar.
Finally, give 'em credit
Positive reinforcement can be as effective as protest. Be constructive whenever possible, and commend outlets when they produce in-depth, bias-free coverage.