How the U.S. journalism industry could play a role in achieving gender equity
If more women were involved in the agenda-setting process through news curation, journalism would be more representative, more accurate, and more complete in terms of community representation.
Today’s “fake news” era reflects a troubling lack of public trust in the news media. Some journalists assign the blame for this disconnect to their consumers and believe that learning news literacy — a critical review of news that involves analyzing different aspects for credibility and potential bias — is up to readers. But leading voices in the field say it is up to journalists themselves to first recognize their own failures in presenting news and then to help consumers understand the process.
And why wouldn’t it be? As journalists, we inherently assume an extremely powerful position of privilege. We not only have access to information that the majority does not, but we also have control over what, and in what manner, that information is democratized. Communication theorists will tell you that the media we consume and the news we receive impact our perceptions of the world around us, for good and for bad — and that power frequently lies in the hands of reporters.
As a feminist and emerging journalist, the news media’s representation of women and minorities is important to me because of the implications that news coverage can have — and as it stands, gender representation is often unbalanced, unequal, and unfair. This means that many journalistic publications are not producing gender-balanced news, and consumers internalize the idea that some genders are more important than others. Achieving equal representation in news media can advance efforts to deconstruct patriarchal and exclusionary power structures and move towards social equity, and especially gender equity.
Feminist media researchers argue that the news has long been cast in a masculine framework, which eliminates other identities. According to a 2016 report of women in online news, “topics and issues traditionally regarded as primarily of interest and relevance to women are routinely marginalized in the news, while men’s views and voices are given privileged space.” The report also found that a transformation of the news could play a role in promoting social equity by dismantling dominant social rules.
What do those current standards look like, and how do they limit us? Currently, only 24% of sources interviewed overall are women, and they are much more likely to appear in stories about health, beauty, arts, and social issues than in stories about politics, government, or business. Less than half of everyday citizens interviewed are women, but 81% of experts and 80% of spokespeople weighing in are men. The trend holds across platforms: male sources are given about four times more time per soundbite in radio and broadcast news than anyone else.
These gender representations support existing patriarchal beliefs that women’s voices should only matter on domestic topics or those of lesser import, while men should almost always be treated as voices of authority. When women’s voices are limited to certain stereotypically feminine topics or, worse, excluded from news coverage altogether, the news communicates to readers that women do not matter and further ingrains gender roles and expectations into their worldview.
This repeated exclusion of a group in media is known as symbolic annihilation, and it sends a pervasive message to consumers which they then internalize — in this case, that women and girls do not have as interesting or significant contributions to their world as men and boys do and thus deserve less respect. Knowing this, journalists should make an effort to reach out to community members and leaders with diverse backgrounds, identities, and perspectives to normalize the acceptance of and respect for currently marginalized communities.
Some of the exclusive practices in journalistic reporting stem from the fact that women and minorities are missing in the very production of media. For example, a 2011 study in global media trends found that just 37% of reporters in television, radio, and newspapers are women. Female reporters write just 32% of hard news articles but up to 40% of soft news stories. Hard news includes topics like politics and government (reported by males 67% of the time) crime and violence (65% by men), and the economy (60% by men).
A media analysis of news coverage surrounding the 2004 presidential election found that female reporters covered just 18% of stories across platforms and outlets, and only 11% of reporters covering the election were people of color, highlighting the racial-ethnic inequalities as well as issues of gender.
However, there is one hard-news category where women have almost reached gender equality, and it might come as a surprise: health and science reporting. While the percentage of these stories by women declined from 46% to 28% at the turn of the century, it increased again to 44% in 2010, and this is the closest to equal of any category analyzed.
Some might wonder why the inclusion of women in the newsroom matters if the news is supposed to be objective. Why should perspective count in journalism, when writers shouldn’t have a perspective? It’s a fair question with an easy answer. Aside from ensuring equal access to jobs regardless of gender identity, analysis of recent research suggests that when more women are in the newsroom, more marginalized perspectives appear in the publication’s coverage. That provides a more inclusive outlook on the community and opens up the space to a diversified population, further democratizing information and completing the stories journalists aim to tell.
Female reporters default to a greater diversity of sources in terms of gender and racial-ethnic identity, and female editors are much more likely to assign stories and encourage sourcing that represents minorities. Today, with women still vastly underrepresented in newsrooms, just 13% of all stories focus specifically on women, and only 6% of stories highlight gender inequality.
It’s not that women aren’t interested in journalism or that they’re less talented than male reporters. Women actually made up more than 64% of journalism school graduates in 2010 and have been pursuing journalism education at higher rates than men since the 1970s. Unfortunately, they comprised only 36.9% of working journalists in the last decade. That’s partially because the traits considered necessary in news often overlap with traits considered masculine or male — gregariousness, independence, and social aggression, for example. Other factors of course contribute to these numbers, like implicit bias from employers and some women’s learned lack of confidence in their abilities.
If more women were involved in the agenda-setting process through news curation, journalism would be more representative, more accurate, and more complete in terms of community representation and thus, would raise public awareness of social inequity and provide all the information the public needs to understand current events.
The news already promises to deliver this, but when it excludes or unfairly diminishes members of the community it claims to provide for, the outlet not only fails in its duty but creates lasting impacts on its readers. Those of us who are interested in restoring public faith in journalism need to realize that we can’t demand our audience’s trust if we’re not representing them correctly.
Journalists, especially male and white journalists, should take intentional, transparent steps to reach and access underserved or minority communities, and all reporters should come away from these studies with a sense that journalistic work is inaccurate if it isn’t inclusive.
If you don’t tell the full story, why tell the story at all?
Stay tuned for a follow-up piece about LGBTQIA+ representation in media, as it is another essential part of gender equity in journalism. Feminism does not stop with women!