There are so many reasons to be talking about this weeks episode of Q&A. With the all science and mathematics expert panel discussing topics ranging from racism to climate change and euthanasia to gender inequality, this week’s episode was refreshingly divergent from the show’s bread and butter political discourse. And yet in what is a rather telling indictment of the Australian media, the only discussion generated seems to be about panellist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was once named the sexiest astrophysicist alive by People magazine, and who displayed some rather entertaining dance moves on Monday Night. Excellent traits to have, but certainly not the most interesting thing that happened on the Q&A stage this week.
While deGrasse Tyson and fellow panellist Adam Spencer traded ideological blows over concerns about the capabilities of artificial intelligence, it was Spencer who came out with perhaps the most poignant comment of the night (in my opinion) when asked about why there are less women engaged in scientific vocations and how more girls can be encouraged to pursue science or mathematics as a career. Appropriately, his comment took aim at the media as well, albeit indirectly.
“Messaging is really important…[on the] commercial radio news this morning, the first story was rugby league, the second story was rugby league, the third story was a rugby league game that hadn’t been played yet, then a hypothesis about the test cricket starting tonight, and the fifth story was that the Australian women’s swimming team in the 100m won the world championship adding to the world record they currently hold and the Olympic Gold. The only thing you can possibly infer from that is that men’s sports are more important than women’s. That is the horrible message we are giving. If that had been a men’s team it would have led the news.”
As an avid netball fan, I find this very difficult to disagree with. Spencer, however, extended this idea further, suggesting that we need a cultural shift in thinking if we are to achieve real gender equality.
“In the AMC which is America’s biggest mathematics competition…the top 100 boys came from 70 different schools who sent 1 or 2 boys. The top 100 girls came from 20 schools who sent 5,6,7 girls. Is it just some statistical fluke? No. Those schools are schools that have champions of mathematics. They are schools that have a culture of mathematics. They’re schools that have a girl in year 7 see a girl in year 12 get a medal and say, that’s going to be me in a few years.”
I know this argument has been made before, although it has usually been made poorly and simplistically before being passed over on morning television for the latest news on the Ben and Jen break up. But this isn’t a topic that requires a one sentence answer. Spencer’s comments could (and perhaps should) have an entire Q&A panel of their own.
The argument that girls are simply less interested has some truth to it. Girls are often intuitively different than boys. They prefer from a young age to play with dolls instead of cars. As much as parents (including myself) have tried to fight against it there is certainly some truth to the ‘nature’ argument. But as Spencer so eloquently points out, messaging is vitally important when it comes to the way girls view themselves in relation to our society’s lores and mores. And while we give lip service to the question of nature versus nurture, I am yet to hear an intelligent and well articulated discussion on the media’s role in shaping the nurture side of the equation. I suppose that is possibly because the media itself is not keen on introspection and is a master of distraction and diversion. Its the reason Kim Kardashian has a job, (if you can call it that).
So what is the media’s core purpose – is it strictly to inform? To commentate? To provoke discussion? As an industry does the media dictate the information we ingest or are they simply responding to what’s popular? Even if the latter is true – and here is the important part – what is the responsibility of the media in determining what is appropriate messaging? Do we simply accept that they are giving the people what they want, or do we hold them to a higher expectation? Do we assume that they have a role in shaping the voices of our future, and if so, who is it that oversees that their messages are being delivered responsibly? Or should there simply be a code that journalists live by preventing irresponsible reporting and encouraging helpful, factual and intelligent articles of information being published?
The issue at hand on Q&A was referring to gender equality – should the media be modelling to girls in a different way, and how does the message affect our culture at large as girls grow into women? However there are many examples that could easily be used in the place of gender equality. Anti vaccination rhetoric is one. Fitness and dieting is another. Body Image another.
Perhaps deGrasse Tyson said it best:
“The press does this all the time…one person will publish one recent result and then the press runs with that result…they are pivoting that one one piece of information and they are presuming that that is the new truth. That is not the new truth…The emergent truth happens when many more than one experiment give you the same result.”
He raises an excellent point. The media does have a tendency to cherry pick pieces of information and sensationalise it’s potential impacts. Perhaps they do this because they know it is a sexy sound byte that will sell and that is a sad indictment on humanity. But how much do they dictate what we think is a sexy sound byte? And why aren’t we expecting more? The fact that deGrasse Tyson’s dance moves made more of a connection with journalists than any of the topics on the show are proof that something is amiss with the media itself; but it is us, the audience, that should require more from our media outlets.