The media and violence against women: A conversation with Maria Hinojosa

By — February 14, 2013

On January 25, I moderated a panel on the media and sexualized violence as part of our symposium, “Global sexualized violence: From epidemiology to action,” with Columbia University. The panel, with journalists Helen Benedict, Maria Hinojosa, and Jenny Nordberg, was lively, to say the least, with hot debate between the audience and speakers as to what the media is doing badly and needs to do better when it comes to covering rape. Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia, argued that she’s seen little change in the sensitivity of the U.S. media when it comes to covering violence against women—and that we have “a long, long way to go.”

“Just about any discussion of women’s rights is still seen in the mainstream press as radical, opinionated, and biased, not as legitimate news,” she said. (The text of Benedict’s talk from the symposium is posted here.)

I followed up with Hinojosa, who is the president of Futuro Media Group, host of PBS’ “Maria Hinojosa: One-on-One,” and anchor and executive producer of NPR's “Latino USA,” to get a better sense of where she thinks our media is at when it comes to this long-underreported story in the United States.

Lauren Wolfe: How do you think the U.S. media is doing in terms of covering violence against women?

Maria Hinojosa: I think in general the U.S. media and its predominant, not-diverse group of editorial decision makers have yet to understand or comprehend the severity of the issue of violence against women in America. While there have been many improvements, the fact is that many men in senior editorial positions continue to see the story of violence against women as not important, having been done, a story that has nothing new to offer.

Maria Hinojosa interviews a man at a rally for women’s rights in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in January 2012. (Lauren Wolfe)

LW: Can you put your finger on the problem? Why women’s issues are so hard to get into the news?

MH: In a time of economic contraction it is really difficult for journalists to cover a story of violence against women because they fear losing their own jobs. This makes it difficult for any journalist to go in and fight for covering women's issues, which may be seen as soft, or appealing to half of the audience and therefore not consistently covered. So a lack of diversity in the media across the board is part of the problem, and a general perception that covering women's issues is not of interest to a general audience has an impact on this kind of reporting.

LW: Do you see that any progress has been made during your time in journalism in terms of coverage—the amount or the way violence against women is spoken about?

There has definitely been a difference in the media, mostly because there are a lot of women that have seen this story and want it to be told both domestically and internationally. For example, the conversation about rape and sexualized violence in war zones is now a story that has been told and there is a clear understanding of sexualized violence as a tool of war, but how much that story has been told in terms of violence against women in the U.S. is still an uphill battle.

Violence against women is often reported as a one-time event, a horrific event, but connecting the dots of the upward trend of violence against women is not something that you see consistently in the media. That is the reason I formed my own production company. I deeply care about this story.

I am in the process of trying to develop a multimedia series called “The Violence Against Women and Girls Reporting Project.” There are other women who have created their own production companies and media companies for the same reason; to be able to tell these stories.

LW: What do you see as the way forward? Are there concrete steps news outlets or individual journalists can take?

MH: For me, the way forward has been to create my own production company and try to tell the stories that I feel need to be told with a team of great and passionate people in my staff that care about this as well. I am optimistic because I see so many young women using the media in creative ways and they understand that these stories haven’t been told enough and they want to tell them, so this is very encouraging.

I think having theses conversations so that news media executives hear about them makes it easier for them to then, perhaps, send one of their editors to go to a symposium and get educated. So I am hopeful in that sense as well. The more we talk about these issues the more journalists will understand that they have a role to play.

The biggest step forward is that sexualized violence against women is not the invisible story that it was even a decade ago. That is perhaps the most hopeful thing that has happened.