Kristin Smart

Kristin Smart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gender is relevant as media function simultaneously as modern agenda setters and orthodox gatekeepers of traditional norms and values (Entman, 1993). The result is the presentation of a world dominated by men and male concerns where women’s voices and perspectives are marginal and peripheral (Ross, 2002).
Merriam-Webster defines “gender” as the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex. It is characterized as the socio-cultural practice of defining people according to femininity, masculinity, and “otherness.” Kamler (1999), who has conducted discourse-analytic studies of language and gender in early childhood and university settings, defines gender as fluid, negotiable, and complex.
Gender is not seen “as a factor that determines behavior, but rather as a category of meaning that is fluid, negotiated, and changed with every use” (Kamler, 1999). Similarly, gender-schema theory proposes that people look at the world through the lens of gender. Cultures tend to polarize females and males by organizing social life around mutually exclusive gender roles.
For example, in communication research, Williams & Best (1982) proposed that from birth, it is clear that male and female babies are treated differently. This difference can be illustrated through the use of language to describe babies. Words such as loving, cute, and sweet are often used to describe female babies, while male infants are more likely to be described with words such as strong, solid, and independent.
Wood (1993) further applied standpoint logic to the field of communication, arguing that different locations within the social hierarchy affect media content. The standpoint of marginalized people provides less false views of the world than do the privileged perspectives of the powerful. Feminist standpoint theory more generally “advocates that knowledge production and validation should be grounded in one’s everyday life, and especially the everyday lives of the oppressed” (Griffin, 1996, p. 181).
Feminist theorists have long blamed the media for serving as instruments transmitting stereotypical, patriarchal, and hegemonic values about women. Carter & Steiner (2003) assert that sexist images reproduced by the media make hierarchical and distorted sex-role stereotypes appear normal. Van Zoonen (1994) summarizes this “transmission model” as a media reflection on society’s dominant social values that symbolically belittle women, either by not showing them at all, or by depicting them in stereotypical roles (p. 17).
Previous studies indicate class and culture also factor into coverage of women.  For example, Liebler (2004) cites the examples of two California college students, Kristin Smart and April Gregory, who both disappeared over the same weekend. Kristin, who was white and from an upper-middle-class background, received a great deal of media attention. 
On the other hand, April, an African-American student at Syracuse University, received very little media coverage. Her school even failed to publicize her disappearance.  Liebler adds that one stark difference between the two young women, besides race, was class.  While Kristin was a principal’s daughter, April worked at a McDonald’s. Liebler argues middle-class missing women have media-savvy parents who can help to shape the media’s portrayal of their daughters, resulting in inequitable media treatment across class lines.  April had two strikes against her—her class and race. 
In another example, Reimers (2007) found that media articulate class and ethnicity together, such that perpetrators with a low social position tend to be perceived as culturally alien, regardless of their ethnic background (Reimers, 2007). Reimers said this became clear in media representations of a woman accused of pushing her 3-year-old son off a bridge. The media represented her in terms of inadequate femininity and social class. Throughout articles, the media emphasized that she belonged to the unskilled working class, was divorced, lived with a man with a suspected criminal background, had recently had an abortion, and had had cosmetic breast surgery (Reimers, 2007). 
Similarly, in their study of missing black and white women in the 2000s, Moody, Dorries, and Blackwell (2008) found that demographics such as class and race play a big role in media coverage. For example, indicators like occupation, homeownership, and neighborhood descriptions helped viewers determine victims’ social standing. Many articles described Laci and Scott Peterson as attractive middle-class people. Police officers who handled the case described the Peterson neighborhood as relatively wealthy or well to do. 
Conversely, black victims, LaToyia Figueroa and Tamika Huston, were lower- to middle- class. Media described Figueroa as the single mother of a 7-year-old daughter and was five months pregnant at the time of her death.  Reports said Figueroa had a solid work record at a Center City restaurant before she died. Media described her father, Mr. Figuero, as an out-of-work craftsman whose business cards read “Melvin the Carpenter.” In addition, comments by Richard Blair of Philadelphia, who launched a drive for the reward fund through his blog,, alluded to her impoverished background:I just didn’t feel that this story had been given any publicity—young, Black woman out of the ghetto.”

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