Speech to Students of the School of Communication,Hong Kong Baptist University

“Stereotyping, Discrimination and Fair Reporting”(只備英文版)— Speech by Ms Anna Wu, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission


(This is an extracted version. To request a copy of the full speech, please email to eoc@eoc.org.hk.)

I am very pleased to be here today. Meeting media is a frequent occurrence in my work as EOC Chair and we need the media as our partner in the dissemination of our messages and information objectively. I will briefly talk about our philosophy, our work and our recent research on gender stereotyping. I will also discuss media depiction of the topic and the need for fair reporting.


Last week we announced the results of two research projects involving students and textbooks. The first project is on Students' Attitudes.

It shows that gender has a profound influence on the way students think. Both male and female students accept that women could have a career. However, both male and female students still expected that men to be the major breadwinner in the family and women as more suitable for the care of young children. Notably, young men surveyed were more rigid and inflexible in their definition of masculinity, restricting themselves to far fewer options in behavior and career choices. For example, the notions that sons should share the housework, men could have women bosses, husbands could be "househusbands" and girls could initiate dating were all out of the question with the boys but were acceptable to the girls.

In relation to school subjects, girls thought that physical education, mathematics and computers were suitable for both sexes whereas the boys considered them male subjects. Art and music were seen as girl subjects whereas science and IT were seen as boy subjects. Extra-curricular activities followed a similar pattern. Football, martial arts and volleyball were for the boys while drawing, dancing and music were for the girls.

Occupational stereotyping was extremely prevalent among both male and female students. When they were asked to imagine being the opposite sex and then choosing a suitable career, there were marked changes in their personal choice of careers. Although they agreed that most occupations were suitable for either gender, stereotypical thinking still dominated career preferences. Very few of them targeted themselves beyond stereotypical boundaries in career options. Employment in the arts and humanities, early childhood education, nursing, fine arts and dancing were thought to be appropriate for girls. Careers in science, IT, engineering, sports and technical work were considered appropriate for boys.

The research also looked into family issues. Results indicated that the young respondents found the re-constituted family, that is, amalgamation of two families into a new one least acceptable, followed by male-headed single parent family, female-headed single parent family, family with the mother in mainland China and age-discrepant parents.

On disability issues, all respondents said that their impression of persons with a disability (PWDs) came largely from the mass media. There was a ranking of disabilities, with those with a learning impairment and those who had experienced mental illness at the bottom.

The students tended to pay attention only to the constraints and limitations of PWDs. For example, persons with a disability were perceived as deviant, accident prone and appropriate for repetitive work and people with mental illness were assumed to be deviant and violent.


Another research related to stereotyping in textbooks.

The areas surveyed were gender, age, disability, single-parenthood and ethnicity. Today I will focus mainly on gender.

In the entries where gender of the characters could be identified (31,970 out of 69,957 entries), female characters appeared less often than male characters (29% vs. 71%) at 1:2.4. In reality, the female to male ratio in the local population is around 1:0.97.

In terms of behavioural processes, women were said to cry, behave strangely and not be able to help eating. Men were associated with courage; women and children were associated with being weak. Women tended to work in the service industry and men tended to play the role of editors, journalists and reporters more than women.

The description of the father was skewed towards his working life and his contribution to society. The description of the mother was skewed towards her life and contribution to the family. Fathers and grandfathers taught their children and grandchildren to deal with the outside world, mothers taught their daughters how to behave at home.

Men served as a knowledge bank about world knowledge, science, geography and how to perform real world tasks. Women appeared to teach about interpersonal relationships. Regarding problem-solution roles, grandfathers, mothers, and children had problems, while fathers typically did not.


The EOC is concerned about the findings because the perceptions students hold influence their interest and career choices, affecting their economic status, achievement and public participation as well as the overall cohesiveness of a community.

The two projects show that stereotypical assumptions are prevalent in young people's minds. The young minds are affected by what they learn at home, in school, in the community and definitely from the media.

You can never tell how a young mind can be affected. On my trip to a Women Leaders' Network meeting in 2000, my husband and my then 10-year-old son went with me. On the flight going there, my son asked what I would be doing there and I explained. He proceeded to give me his perspective of the world. He said, "I think women are less suited to being leaders than men. There are so few of them around!" Well he applied logic in reverse. You see fewer of them and therefore they are not as good. What the young minds find visible or not visible in a society creates enormous impact on them.

Education and the media play a significant role in removing stereotypical perceptions, and textbooks and newspapers are catalysts to change.


We recognize that men and women are, by definition, different. But in this society where social norms and values were largely defined according to male perspectives, the differences between the sexes are often interpreted to give so-called "female traits" an inferior status while "male traits" are celebrated. And in the past, policy makers, who were often males, seldom considered or incorporated female perspectives in their activities.

Women's status in Hong Kong can be reflected by the following statistics. In 1971, about 36% of women over the age of 15 had received no schooling or only kindergarten education. By 1999, this figure was reduced to 12.6%.

According to statistics released by the Census and Statistics Department in 2001, women's median monthly earnings ($8,500) were 29% lower than men's ($12,000) in the main occupation groups in 2000.

Figures released by the Census and Statistics Department show that in 1999, only 8% of female workers were managers, administrators and professionals, while 16% of male workers were in the same category. 32% of female workers were clerks, as compared with 9% of male workers. 25% of female workers were in elementary occupations while 14% of male workers were in the same category.


Let me now talk about the media treatment of stereotyping and what our laws says about it.

Discrimination comes in all forms, many have experienced it, it could happen to you, to someone in your family or to a friend. It is like a mosquito. You don't hear it coming but your sure feel it after you've been stung by it. Many journalists carry assumptions and biases of their own, these may be consciously or sub-consciously reflected in their writing.

The Journalists' Code of Professional Ethics (issued by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the Hong Kong News Executives Association, the Hong Kong Federation of Journalists and the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association) advises, that "Journalists in their reportage or commentary should not discriminate or encourage others to discriminate on grounds of age, race, color, creed, religion, place or circumstance of birth, disability, marital status, gender or sexual orientation." That certainly mirrors our concerns at the EOC.

Freedom to receive information and to impart it, freedom of thought, speech and expression are basic human rights. The media provides the forum for exchange of information and for expression of diverse views. For this role it plays, it is guaranteed under the Basic Law, freedom of the press. This privilege is conferred upon the press to enable it to disseminate information accurately, objectively, fairly and independently. This entails the removal of assumptions on the part of journalists and requires high standards of ethical behaviour.

Just where does freedom of expression end and "propaganda for war" or "hate speech" begin?

A 1994 column in a weekly newspaper in Canada, North Shore News, by Doug Collins provoked a bitter battle between the Canadian Jewish Congress and the columnist. The column, entitled "Hollywood Propaganda", predicted the movie "Schindler's List" would win the Academy Award because it was part of the Holocaust–related Jewish propaganda designed to extract "billions of dollars" from Germany. The columnist went on to say that, "What happened to the Jews during World War II is not only the longest lasting but also the most effective propaganda exercise ever". Lawyers for the newspaper said in defense that the law dealing with racial hatred should be scrapped as it could inhibit the media carrying controversial viewpoints.

Under the three anti-discrimination laws, it is unlawful for the media to publish advertisements that contain discrimination on the prohibited grounds. These ads reinforce stereotypes. They form the first barrier to access – for instance, it bars a job seeker from applying for a job. Up until 1997 we had many ads in the newspapers requiring applicants to be young and beautiful (年輕貌美) or with 4 limbs intact (肢體完整).

The EOC took a series of actions against newspapers and this phenomenon has by and large died off. I would like to cite one example.

A discriminatory advertisement was placed in the Apple Daily on 9 May 1997 advertising for "several pretty female reporters" (採訪Ball場靚女) to report on balls and social events. The EOC instituted legal proceedings against the Apple Daily under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance (SDO), and the Court of Appeal ruled in our favour.

Our Disability Discrimination Ordinance (DDO) also prohibits vilification on the ground of disability. It is unlawful to incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of persons with a disability. A fair report of an activity in public is exempted but the exemption does not 'cover' commentaries (s.46). Further, the DDO prohibits serious vilification (s.47) where threat of physical harm is involved.

The Crimes Ordinance (s10) makes the publication and distribution of seditious publication with seditious intent a criminal offence. Seditious intention includes the intention to promote feeling of ill-will and enmity between different classes of the population of Hong Kong. This is close to racial vilification.

The press is also subject to the general law of defamation although it has wider latitude. One case, which brought gender discrimination, stereotyping and defamation together, is a UK case involving Judy Owen. She won a battle against the Professional Golfers Association to wear trousers. She was harassed and bullied by her manager because of her sex. She said her manager "ordered" her to wear skirts as part of his campaign to undermine her. Her manager referred to women golfers as "dykes & lesbians", and described women generally as "emotional and manipulating".

After her court victory, in an article published by the Sunday Mirror (on 23 January 2000), Judy Owen was criticized for bringing a claim on what was considered a 'trivial' matter. The Sunday Mirror settled and paid out undisclosed damages to Judy Owen for publishing defamatory remarks.

But stereotyping is not only limited to gender. Less than two weeks ago, we organized our annual seminar on the media and mental illness. Reports of violence committed by individuals often "alleged" to be persons with a mental illness, were cited by speakers. Some of the headlines are very disturbing. They depict the mentally ill as a bunch of cold-blooded and totally unpredictable killers and perpetuate fear.

Let's take a look at a resource kit for the Australian Media Professionals (developed by the Department of Health and Aged Care in Australia.) The tips aim to help achieve balance reporting. These are:
• Ensure the headline makes links that are accurate and confirmed. Make sure it is important before you give it headline focus.
• Sensationalism and mental illness is a bad combination.
• Avoid outdated, negative or colloquial language like 'insane', 'lunatic', 'schizo', 'mad', 'crazies', 'maniac', 'looney bin', 'mental home' & 'mental patient'.
• Avoid language that implies a mental illness as a life sentence.
• Avoid reinforcing myths about mental illnesses; not all are violent.
• Not all mental illnesses are the same, some are temporary depressive states.
• Respect the right to privacy.

Bad reporting reinforces stereotyping, perpetuates fear and harms the persons with a mental illness and discourages them from seeking help. This also raises interesting questions about making editorial judgments on sensitive issues such as privacy and the reporting of HIV/AIDS. Fairness, accuracy, objectivity, selection and language all come into play.

I should add that in a case dealing with plaintiffs who had relatives with mental illness, we got a court order prohibiting the media from referring to their identities or publishing their photographs.

Dr. YH Wong, one of the panel speakers in our annual media seminar also highlighted the reporting of suicides. I think we can all recall detailed accounts splashed across the front pages of how an individual had decided to take his or her life. Dr. Wong warned against the dangers of sensationalizing these acts, as it could send out the wrong message that ending one's own life might be a glorifying or even positive solution to end one's problems.

Studies abroad have revealed the copycat effects of similar reports. The BBC under its Producers' Guidelines stipulates that, "Suicide is a legitimate subject for news reporting but the factual reporting of suicides may encourage others. Reports should avoid glamorizing the story, providing simplistic explanations, or imposing on the grief of those affected. They should also usually avoid graphic or technical details of a suicide method particularly when the method is unusual. Sensitive use of language is also important." Unfortunately, local newspapers sensationalized a recent suicide pact, committed by 3 teenagers in Cheung Chau last month, was such coverage necessary?

I have shared with you some thoughts and perspectives on equal opportunities. We all recognize that the media is a powerful tool in this changing world of ours, and as practitioners in future, I hope you will use it well.