Muslim women: Do their good stories get less news coverage than the bad ones?

If you're still sentient, you're surely aware of the situation facing women living in patriarchal Muslim-majority nations. Likewise, you've also surely read your fair share of yarns such as this New York Times piece from 2015, headlined, “Women in Tunisia Tell of Decades of Police Cruelty, Violence and Rape.”

Or this 2016 survey story, from U.S. News & World Report, that placed eight Muslim nations among the 10 worst countries when measuring gender equality. Or this one from 2015, produced by Al Jazeera -English, on the situation facing women in Afghanistan.

Such stories of women's status and treatment in Muslim nations are a staple of Western journalistic coverage of the Islamic world. When done fairly and placed in their appropriate cultural context  -- without allowing that context to serve as an excuse — these stories are important and should be told.

But I'm wondering why stories detailing legal advances for women in Muslim nations seem not to receive equally strong play in mainstream Western news media.

Sure, such changes tend to strike Westerners as merely incremental and long overdue, which tends to dull their news value in the minds of some reporters and editors. Nor are such steps as life-altering as more difficult to achieve grass-root cultural changes, meaning how ordinary people actually live and treat each other no matter what the law says.

Still, legal changes, as aspirational as they may be, set precedents that can promote real change down the road. As such, they deserve wide media attention.

Two stories of this sort caught my eye last week -- though apparently not the eyes of many others in the world of elite Western media.

The first, reported here by Al Jazeera-English, told of how the Jordanian parliament has moved toward ending the ability of rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims, a time-honored loophole that persists in parts of the Muslim world.

(But not just the Muslim world. Read this Times piece to see what I mean. And for a different -- meaning male Muslim -- understanding of the woes many Muslim women face, read this opinion piece from the British newspaper The Independent. The writer blames colonialism, not Islam, for much of the problem -- an interesting take, but I'm not buying it.)

The second story was a Times piece out of Tunisia. But unlike the two-year-old article noted in my first paragraph, this one is somewhat more upbeat on the overall status of women there, beginning with its headline: “Tunisia Takes a Big Step to Protect Women from Abuse.”

Here’s the top of it:

TUNIS -- Tunisia has long been regarded as a pioneer for women’s rights in the Arab world, but the day-to-day life of many Tunisian women is still one of abuse and harassment. So when Parliament passed a measure last week outlawing violence against women, some burst into ululation and passed around bouquets of jasmine.
The new law makes it easier to prosecute domestic abuse, and it imposes penalties for sexual harassment in public spaces. It says that citizens are entitled to notify the police if they witness violence against women, and that children should be educated in schools about human rights. And it calls for both the police and judges to be trained on how to handle violence against women.

I can't really explain the difference in tone between the two Times pieces, which appear to also differ on details of Tunisia’s past record. All I can say is that for me, this merely underscores the truth about so-called journalistic objectivity -- which is that objectivity is very subjective, even when it's two reporters covering the same nation for the same newspaper, working under the same journalistic and professional standards.

But didn't I say that the mainstream press in general failed to give these good news stories their appropriate due? And isn't the The New York Times the ultimate symbol of the mainstream press? So if the Times ran a story, doesn't it follow as night follows day (or day follows night, if you're a Book of Genesis literalist) that the mainstream press did its job?

I don't think so. Let me state for the record: Just because the Times covered a story does not mean the elite media in general gave a story its deserved coverage.

Nor does running a wire piece buried on a website constitute deserved coverage -- as ABC News, and CBS News and even The Washington Post all did with the Jordanian story

The Tunisia story received even less play, wire or otherwise, as far as I could discern via a brief internet search.

So what’s the bottom line here?

If I did an  exhaustive web search perhaps I'd find that, over time, there has been no coverage disparity between positive and negative stories about women in Muslim-majority nations. Since I didn't, I can't say definitively, but my impression remains that a major disparity does exist.

Is this explained by chalking it up to just another iteration of journalism's if-it-bleeds-it-leads mentality, that bad news attracts more interest than good news?

Or is Western journalism simply fixated (biased?) on the idea that the Muslim world is stuck in the past and is incapable of change?

Hopefully, there's a journalism doctoral student out there looking for a thesis subject who will get to the truth of this issue.  If so, I cede the ground to you. But please do let us know what you come up with.

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