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WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND…

Miranda Spencer

Miranda Spencer, freelance journalist, editor, and critic, has been writing about mass media, the environment, and politics for the alternative and mainstream press for nearly two decades. A former staffer at Biography and The Nation, she is a frequent contributor to Extra!, the journal of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting...

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Miranda Spencer's Blog Introduction

Women, Media, AND... The Environment

Environmental issues are women’s issues in every way. After all, the state of our air, land, and water touches every area of life, and therefore every news beat: health, recreation, industry, housing, agriculture, transportation, immigration, energy, economics, international relations and war….It’s a scientific, political, and cultural issue, because how we treat the ecology is inextricably tied to how it treats us. What’s under- reported is the distinct ways in which environmental issues affect women (and vice versa).

Consider:

  • Pollution and Toxins: As writer Melissa Knopper reported in E: The Environmental Magazine’s September/October 2004 cover story: “Toxic exposures have a disproportionate impact on women” because we accumulate them at higher levels than men due to our greater number of fat cells, in which estrogen-disrupting and other chemicals tend to accumulate. Moreover, she found, “researchers are discovering hundreds of chemicals that affect women’s health differently than [men’s]. ” And what gets into our breast milk gets into (and can harm) our babies.

    For that matter, according to the American Cancer Society, about one in seven women will get breast cancer. Yet the main message we take home from the news and popular media involve diet recommendations and the slogan “early detection [i.e. mammograms] is your best protection.” For example, a typical New York Times article (6/5/05) on the shifting health guidelines doctors give to women mentioned only the debate over the “when and how often” of mammograms and breast cancer’s recently revealed connection to artificial hormones prescribed to menopausal patients. The environmental causes of breast cancer, and other ailments disproportionately affecting women, could benefit from further media scrutiny.

  • Agriculture: Historically, women have played a large role in raising and harvesting foods. This responsibility has included the saving of natural, indigenous seeds. This tradition is being dramatically altered, with questionable environmental consequences, by the trends of resource privatization and genetic engineering.

  • Water: Women in developing nations have also played a prominent role in retrieving and using clean water. In fact, the antiwar/feminist organization Women's International League for Peace and Freedom has made ensuring the quality, public availability, and affordability of water one of its two main campaigns for 2005-2008.

  • Population: Population rates place a large strain on natural resources. Women are the ones who have babies, so reproductive rights and choices (access to contraception and abortion, how many children to have) have environmental impacts. This angle is seldom mentioned in the media, which tends to focus on the environmental pressures of immigration-driven population growth and celebrate moms of septuplets while treating birth control and abortion mainly as political and cultural debates.

  • Consumption: The much touted American consumer way of life—relentlessly buying products and guzzling energy—drains resources and produces wastes. Women have historically played a large role in shopping for household goods and are the target of advertising campaigns for chemical-laden products such as makeup and hair color. As Gloria Steinem noted in her classic essay “Sex, Lies, and Advertising,” this fact has led the news media to limit editorial content that might shed a bad light on their advertisers. Countless popular magazines and newspaper style sections target women –including those with an eco-consumer focus, such as Organic Style. Whether mainstream or “green,” these publications also perpetuate the sexist notion that women need beauty products and will do most of the housework.

  • Racism and classism: According to government statistics, industrial facilities and dumps are most often sited in poor and minority neighborhoods. And many of the most prominent "environmental justice" activists are women. (Last year, “Cancer Alley” resident Margie Eugene-Richard was the first African American to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work to hold polluters accountable for severe health problems in her Louisiana community.) And if not for the persistence of a stay-at-home mom named Lois Gibbs in fighting the dump that was poisoning working-class families in Love Canal, New York, there might never have been a Superfund. But the actions and positions of these often women-led grassroots groups get far less coverage than large mainstream organizations that are, incidentally, mainly headed by men.

  • Eco-feminism: This movement/philosophy holds that environmental crises are caused by a relationship with “Mother Earth” grounded in traditional male values of domination and control, and can be alleviated by incorporating traditionally female values of nurturing and support. Not read anything about this approach lately? Neither have I.

  • As well, female scientists are doing important work that deserves a spotlight, like MIT’s Amy Smith, profiled in Sierra magazine’s July/August 2005 issue, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant for designing green technologies for the developing world. Historically, groundbreaking work by female scientists on the deleterious environmental effects of widely used chemicals was disparaged until their research evidence couldn’t be ignored -- as with pesticide DDT by Rachel Carson in the 1960s and endocrine-disrupting substances by Theo Colborn a generation later).

    Admittedly, the above observations are somewhat impressionistic. But back in 1992, I published a 7,000-word analysis of trends in U.S. mainstream environmental reporting in Extra!, the journal of the media watchdog FAIR. (Available only in print; contact fair@fair.org.) At the time, I found that coverage tends to center on disasters and major events (e.g. oil spills or Earth Day) and legislation (the Clean Air Act), and to utilize a zero-sum, “he said/she said” framework that reduces multifaced issues to the dueling arguments of two “sides” in an effort to avoid the appearance of advocacy and bias. Here in this blog, I hope to document and comment on the extent to which that’s still true and more important, how women fit into the equation.

    Besides examining press coverage of environmental issues involving (or omitting) women, over time, I plan to point the general public to stories of interest and reporters to topics and angles worthy of further or deeper coverage, and occasionally do original brief articles and interviews on under-reported “women, media and the environment” subjects. I’m privileged to be a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists www.sej.org, whose membership is a solid fifty percent female, and will tap into its extensive resources, especially working reporters and editors for insights into the challenges of environmental reporting and how to improve it to include more women in every way.

    I intend to give equal time to entertainment media. The fact-based feature film Erin Brockovich, in which Julia Roberts helps a community sue the utility that’s polluting their water, and MTV’s Trippin’, last summer’s global eco-touring series hosted by Cameron Diaz, surely reach and affect at least as many people as USA Today or your local evening news. I’ll also remark on popular service-oriented women’s magazines such as Self, Good Housekeeping, and the recently-extinct Organic Style. Articles (and ads) on broadly environment-related issues affecting women have been – or should be-- a staple of the genre (albeit often trumpeted in sensationalized cover lines).

    That’s a lot to promise. I hope readers will let me know when I deliver well and when I don’t, and I encourage readers and my “fellow” contributors to suggest topics for future discussion.


    Miranda Spencer's Biography

    Miranda Spencer, freelance journalist, editor, and critic, has been writing about mass media, the environment, and politics for the alternative and mainstream press for nearly two decades. A former staffer at Biography and The Nation, she is a frequent contributor to Extra!, the journal of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.

    “Pulp Facts: Paper, Pollution, and the Press” (2000), her investigative feature on the environmental impact of print media and its effect on news coverage of related issues, garnered an honorable mention from Project Censored, and her 1995 article, “Desperately Seeking Difference: ABC Finds Biology Is Destiny ” appears in the textbook Opposing Viewpoints: Male/Female Roles.

    Miranda has published articles in girls’ magazines Seventeen and YM and worked in the research departments of Glamour and Working Mother. She is currently a contributor to E: The Environmental Magazine and has reported on urban environmental topics for local media in New Jersey and Philadelphia, where she resides.


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